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Japan, Asean strengthen ties in bid to counter China

In a success for his Southeast Asian diplomacy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saw a summit meeting between Japan and Asean agree to jointly urge China to abide by international rules.

At a special Tokyo summit meeting among Japan and 10 Asean nations at the weekend, the leaders adopted a joint statement emphasising the importance of ensuring freedom of navigation and safety of seas and resolving conflicts in accordance with the "universally recognised principles of international laws".

The statement clearly said the nations will cooperate to ensure the "freedom of overflight" and "civil aviation safety" in air zones over the high seas. The focus of the statement was obviously China's newly declared East China Sea air defence identification zone, although it did not specifically refer to China.

Some Southeast Asian nations, such as Cambodia and Laos, have close ties with China. Nonetheless, it was significant that Japan and the Asean member nations issued the joint statement with the aim of holding China in check amid heightened tensions not only on the seas but also in the air.

Without consulting with its neighbours, China unilaterally set its ADIZ over disputed islands and threatened to adopt "emergency defensive measures" against any aircraft that refuses to obey its instructions. It also hinted at setting another ADIZ over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

"Without free ocean and air [navigation], we can't expect to have active trade," Abe stressed at a press conference

During his separate meetings with the Asean leaders and during the summit sessions, Abe said Japan will contribute to regional stability based on "proactive pacifism", and proposed holding a joint Asean-Japan meeting of defence ministers.

It is imperative for Japan to deepen cooperative security ties with Asean to deal with China and North Korea.

Asean and China are considering setting legally binding codes of conduct in the South China Sea, where they have prolonged territorial disputes, but Beijing is reluctant to accept such codes. Japan should cooperate with the United States in backing Asean efforts to conclude an early agreement on codes of conduct with China.

At the special summit, participants also made progress on economic cooperation. Negotiations for a Japan-Asean economic partnership saw broad agreement on two fields - investment and the service industry.

Abe expressed Japan's support for Asean Economic Community Asean due to launch at the end of 2015 and pledged to provide development assistance to the body.

Absorbing the vigour of rapidly growing Southeast Asia will provide a springboard for Japan's economic growth, said Japan's leader.

The leaders also formulated a mid- and long-term plan for cooperation not only in political and economic fields but also in the area of anti-disaster measures. They also plan more active exchanges in culture, arts, tourism and sports.

Japan and Asean are marking the 40th anniversary of their relations this year. It is hoped that they will strengthen their strategic ties even further.

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