Japan seeks defence ties with Asean amid China rows

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan on Wednesday called for stronger security ties with Southeast Asia as Tokyo looks to boost alliances at a time of growing territorial tensions with China.

Vice-minister level representatives from Japan and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) began a two-day gathering at a Tokyo hotel, with several participating nations embroiled in sovereignty rows with Beijing.

"The Asia-Pacific region has various issues concerning security and defence... including territorial conflicts in the South China Sea," Vice Defence Minister Akinori Eto told the opening session of the closed-door meeting.

"On top of the growing maturity of our economic cooperation, Japan and Asean need to further strengthen ties in the field of security and defence," Mr Eto said.

The meeting is the first high-ranking defence dialogue of its kind since hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office late December following a landslide victory in general elections.

"Our country changed governments late last year," Mr Eto said. "Under the new regime, we want to reinforce cooperation in security and defence with Asean countries and contribute to peace in the region," he added.

Ahead of the meeting, the Asean participants met Abe late Tuesday and voiced their high expectations from Japan "in dealing with various security issues of the Asia-Pacific region," the defence ministry said in a statement.

Japan, along with several members of Asean have locked horns with China over separate territorial disputes.

Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have deteriorated badly over the last year as the two sides argued about the sovereignty of Tokyo-controlled islands in the East China Sea.

On Tuesday, three Chinese government ships spent several hours in the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone off one of the Senkaku islands, claimed by Beijing under the name Diaoyus. Taiwan also claims them.

Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as China and Taiwan, have claims to parts of the South China Sea, which contains some of the world's most important shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in fossil fuels.

Simmering tensions over the issue have risen in the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of becoming increasingly aggressive.

China claims most of the sea, including waters close to the shores of its neighbours.

Relations between the Philippines and China have become particularly tense since patrol vessels from both countries engaged in a stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal in April.

Analysts said China's recent prickliness meant regional alliances made sense.

"Japan and Asean can regard security cooperation as a realistic option because China is their common adversary," said Mr Hideshi Takesada, a Japanese defence expert and former professor at South Korea's Yonsei University.

"Practically, Japan can provide defence technologies or equipment to ASEAN so that Japan can win their trust," said Mr Takesada, who is also former professor at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies.

Japan reportedly plans to donate patrol boats worth more than US$10 million (S$12million)each to the Philippines, ramping up regional efforts to monitor China's maritime activity in disputed waters.

The Japanese government plans to finance the deal in its fiscal 2013 budget starting in April and hopes to officially sign it early next year, the Nikkei business daily reported last month.

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