PM Abe to offer Japan as China counterweight at Shangri-La

TOKYO (AFP) - Mr Shinzo Abe will use a speech at an Asian defence forum this weekend to offer Japan as a counterweight to the growing might of China in a region increasingly riven by territorial disputes.

The Japanese prime minister will tell the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue that Tokyo and its partner the United States stand ready to jointly bolster security cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported.

He will stop short of singling out China, the paper added, but there will be little doubt about where he thinks the blame lies for the various escalating disputes in the South China Sea, and Japan's own battle with Beijing over East China Sea islands.

Mr Abe "might announce his aim to play more active roles in Asia by using the Japan-US alliance as the foundation," said Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

The right-wing ideologue who has set about reshaping the rules of engagement for Japan's powerful, though little-used military as he pushes a doctrine he has dubbed "proactive pacifism", has offered support - both practical and spiritual - to Manila and Hanoi, in the form of coastguard vessels and public pronouncements.

Both are engaged in corrosive territorial rows with Beijing, and both are heavily outgunned by China, whose military has enjoyed double-digit budget rises annually for more than a decade.

Mr Abe will be hoping that the more timid countries in the region will see that succour as a sign of Japan's willingness to engage, offering them an alternative to Chinese power from the only country with the military clout.

- No Abe meeting with Xi -

During his keynote speech at the three-day Asia Security Summit, starting on Friday, Mr Abe will urge China to respect the rule of law, Kyodo News said, at a time that the impression is growing in the region that the world's number two economy is happy to throw its weight around.

Mr Abe will call for "constructive discussions", said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, to take the heat out of rows that pit China against a number of Asean countries, as well as Tokyo against Beijing.

"Considering the heightening situations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, we hope that various constructive discussions will take place toward this region's peace and safety" at the forum, he said.

Since coming to power in late 2012, Mr Abe has assiduously courted Asean, visiting all 10 member countries at least once.

He has still not been to China, nor met with Xi Jinping, its president.

Some Asean members have been bolder than others in standing up to China; Vietnam and the Philippines have both proved willing to push back, despite their relative military weakness that would likely see them squashed in any tussle.

Others have been less keen to put their heads above the parapet for fear of angering the regional paymaster.

- Treading a line -

Beijing, which insists it has the deeds to virtually the whole of the South China Sea, prefers to peel Asean members off the pack, cajoling or haranguing them with economics so that it never faces a bloc-wide response to its claims to own islands far from its shores.

The most volatile of the rows involving China escalated Tuesday when Hanoi claimed a Chinese vessel had rammed and sunk a fishing boat near a drilling rig in contested waters.

No one was hurt in the incident, but it was believed to be the first sinking since ships from the two sides started duelling over the area several weeks ago.

Mr Suga said if the reports were true, the ramming was an "extremely dangerous act".

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Tuesday, Mr Abe said Beijing's "unilateral drilling activities" for oil in waters claimed also by Hanoi have led to a "heightening of tensions".

"We will never tolerate the change of status quo by force or coercion," Mr Abe told the paper.

Last weekend, Japan accused China of "dangerous" manoeuvres, saying Chinese fighters twice flew too close to Japanese military aircraft where the countries' air defence identification zones overlap.

While much of Asia - save China and the Korean peninsula - appears at ease with a more engaged Japan, Mr Abe must face down opposition at home for plans to allow his armed forces to engage in collective defence, coming to the aid of allies under fire, something barred under current interpretations of Japan's constitution.

But, warns Sophia University's Nakano, while he may be pushing against an open door with Asean, he would be wise not to push too hard and make member nations feel they were being asked to choose between Tokyo and Beijing.

"While Japan's approach itself should not trouble ASEAN, it might not win many friends if it appears to be giving primacy to besieging China," he said.

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