TOKYO (AP) — Japan wants to play a greater defense role in Asia to promote peace and prosperity amid tensions over territorial disputes, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday.
In a speech in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an international security conference, Abe raised concerns about escalating tensions in the South China Sea, and urged all countries in the region to observe the rule of law and not use force or threats.
Abe also outlined new guidelines that will ease Japan's self-imposed limits on military exports and defensive activities, and pledged to contribute more to the region in those areas, as well as through official development aid.
"Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world more certain," Abe said.
He promised "seamless" support for Southeast Asian countries in defending their territories by combining defense programs and government aid.
Abe said efforts "to consolidate changes to the status quo by aggregating one fait accompli after another can only be strongly condemned," an apparent reference to China's recent assertiveness in pressing its territorial claims in the region. He did not identify China by name, but praised the Philippines and Vietnam for their efforts to resolve the disputes through dialogue.
Abe's government has been trying to ease constitutional restraints on Japan's military, which currently can only be used in its own self-defense. He says Japan's pacifist constitution restricts its global contributions and should be revised, but that for now its war-renouncing Article 9 should be interpreted more broadly to allow Japan's military to help defend foreign troops. The government relaxed arms export rules in April.
He said Japan will remain a peace-loving nation that values law and order and abhors war. "I would like all of you gathered here today to understand that point in a way that is absolutely crystal clear," Abe said.
Security is a sensitive topic for Japan, once an aggressor in Asia, to discuss in the region. Abe is the first Japanese leader to do so at the security dialogue, also called the Asian Security Summit.
China's moves to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea have given impetus to Abe's hopes to play a bigger role in regional security.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, bringing it into conflict with others in the region. The Philippines accused China in May of reclaiming land around a reef that both countries say is their own. The feuds mirror a dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea over a group of uninhabited islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
In a tangible sign of Abe's effort to deepen ties with Southeast Asia, Japan is exploring whether to accelerate the possible supply of patrol boats to Vietnam using official development aid. Japan has agreed to provide 10 Japanese-made boats to the Philippines.
Under his new security strategy, Japan is "determined to spare no effort or trouble for the sake of the peace, security and prosperity of Asia and the Pacific, at even greater levels than before," he said. With Japan's alliance with the U.S. and partnership with Southeast Asia, it can make the region's stability, peace and prosperity "rock-solid," Abe said.