Abe to make key speech on region's security here

His address at Shangri-La Dialogue will be the first by a Japanese leader

ST 20140526 VSTMEDIAPARTNER 351776m

JAPANESE Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will pay a two-day visit this week to Singapore, where he will deliver a major speech on the region's security outlook as well as his push to reinterpret Japan's pacifist Constitution.

His keynote address at the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum for top defence officials from the Asia-Pacific, starting on Friday, will be the first by a Japanese leader.

Officials are tight-lipped on the content of Mr Abe's speech, though he is widely expected to address rising regional tensions due to the territorial disputes between China and several of its neighbours, as well as Beijing's move last November to introduce an air defence zone over the East China Sea.

Mr Abe is also expected to shed light on his attempts to lift a constitutional ban on Japanese Self- Defence Forces going to the aid of allies under armed attack, an act outlawed since World War II.

A report by his hand-picked security panel earlier this month suggested that Japan needs to reinterpret the Constitution to respond to changes to the regional security environment in recent years. But the move remains controversial at home and abroad, especially in China, which views Mr Abe's intentions with suspicion.

Some observers are anticipating a sharp exchange at the forum between Mr Abe and members of the mainland Chinese delegation, such as Ms Fu Ying, a former vice-foreign minister who now chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese legislature.

China has decided not to send its defence minister, unlike most countries attending the event.

Instead, the delegation from the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) will be led by Lieutenant-General Wang Guangzhong, the deputy chief of general staff, said Dr Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia), which organises the forum.

The PLA was represented by a similarly ranked officer at last year's Shangri-La Dialogue. China sent its defence minister to the event just once, in 2011.

Other notable speakers this week include US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who will talk about America's contribution to regional stability in a speech on Saturday morning.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters: "It is an important opportunity to build on the momentum we've achieved in strengthening our engagement and our alliances and partnerships in the Pacific region."

While the Shangri-La Dialogue focuses on a broad range of security issues, this year's proceedings are expected to be dominated by growing tension in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

China's decision earlier this month to send an oil rig into waters disputed by Beijing and Hanoi sparked anti-China riots across Vietnam, and plunged relations to their lowest point since their brief border war in 1979. Vietnam is now said to be considering whether to join the Philippines in taking China to court over its claims in the South China Sea.

Asked if the territorial disputes would overwhelm the other issues at the dialogue, Dr Huxley said: "No. We should not think that the tension over the territorial disputes is just a little hiccup. There are extremely serious and dangerous security problems in the Asia- Pacific region at the moment, and they need to be discussed at the Shangri-la Dialogue."

The Straits Times is a media partner for this year's Shangri-La Dialogue.

More information available at: https://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri-s-la-s-dialogue