TOKYO — Some southeast Asian nations want one-time foe Japan to play an active role in regional security, Tokyo said Thursday, as countries seek a balance for China’s growing clout.
Vice-minister level representatives from Japan and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ended a two-day gathering at a Tokyo hotel that came as several participating nations are embroiled in sovereignty rows with Beijing.
“The two sides shared a recognition of the importance of further strengthening their partnership in security and defense,” Japanese Vice Defense Minister Hironori Kanazawa said following the meeting.
Some ASEAN members voiced their expectation that “Japan would play a more active role” in the stabilization of the security environment in the region, he said. He did not specify which countries he was talking about or how many.
Japan’s often brutal march through Asia in the first half of the 20th century left a lingering distrust, even after Tokyo’s total defeat in 1945. But decades of peaceful growth that often went hand-in-hand with liberal sprinklings of aid and investment in the region softened its image.
China’s growing might and confidence in pressing its far-flung territorial claims, meanwhile, have seen Beijing rub up against a number of neighbors, with some — particularly Vietnam and the Philippines — openly expressing disquiet. That in turn has left some looking for Tokyo to play a more assertive role as a way to counterbalance China.
Akinori Eto, another vice defense minister, said Japan also had an interest in closer cooperation.
“At a time when the security circumstances in the region are continuing to change, ASEAN countries are playing a significant role for our country,” he said. “The region has common challenges such as maritime security and territorial disputes. In order to tackle these issues, defense authorities are urged to boost cooperation further.”
Japan, along with several members of ASEAN, has 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.
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.
Susumu Yamakage, professor of international politics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, said closer ties with ASEAN members made sense for Tokyo.
“Waters in Southeast Asia are also important for Japan,” Yamakage told a seminar following the meeting. “Its security cooperation with ASEAN countries is quite conceivable and very important.”