Japan, Asean should work with US in ensuring maritime freedom: Japan minister

Japan and Asean should work more closely with the United States in maintaining navigational freedom in the Asia-Pacific region, a Japanese Cabinet minister has urged.

His comments came amid a war of words with China over territorial disputes and visits to a controversial war shrine.

Mr Ichita Yamamoto, the Japanese state minister for oceanic policy and territorial issues, said in a speech in Singapore on Thursday that the US played a "vital" role in maintaining peace and prosperity in the region, and that countries which benefited from it should work together to maintain freedom of the sea lanes.

"The alliance between Japan and the US is a common good in the region, from which both Japan and Asean benefit," he told the audience at the Fullerton Lecture organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Japan is committed to further enhancing this alliance."

Mr Yamamoto also repeatedly stressed the need to respect the rule of law in resolving the region's competing territorial claims.

But he rejected suggestions that Tokyo and Beijing should take their disputes over several islands in the East China Sea - known as Senkaku to Japan and Diaoyu to China - to the International Court of Justice.

And in barbed remarks on China's introduction of a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November last year, he said the move reflected "another attempt to challenge the status quo as well as the international order founded on the rule of law".

Beijing has defended its introduction of the ADIZ as a "necessary measure" to protect its sovereignty.

In his speech, Mr Yamamoto also defended Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, which drew a sharp rebuke from several countries in the region, particularly China. Beijing declared subsequently that it would no longer engage Mr Abe in talks.

Despite the two countries' worsening ties, Mr Yamamoto said Tokyo continued to keep open the door for dialogue, adding: "China and Japan will always be neighbours.

"While the two countries may have differences on certain issues, Japan and China should respect and develop their bilateral relationship for mutual benefit."