China looms over Japan-ASEAN summit
By Elaine Lies, Reuters
December 12, 2013, 12:05 am TWN
TOKYO--When leaders from Japan and Southeast Asia gather in Tokyo this week, the elephant in the room will be a nation that is not invited: China.
Beijing's rise as a military power as its economy has become second only to that of the United States has long sparked concern in Asia, and tensions spiked last month when China announced a new air defense zone straddling islands also claimed by Japan in the East China Sea.
China, despite being a major trade partner and investor in Southeast Asia, is also locked in territorial rows with several other Asian nations over wide stretches of the South China Sea and has said it might set up a similar air defense zone there.
Japan, which has in recent years stepped up private sector investment in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries as an alternative to an unpredictable and risky China, now wants to draw closer to the grouping on the security front as a counter-balance to Beijing.
“It is very important to show our big neighbor in Asia the mainstream is free markets, democracy, human rights,” said a Japanese government official familiar with diplomatic strategy.
“This is the future. This is the message to be sent from the summit.”
The meeting with the 10-member ASEAN will include expanded currency-swap deals and fresh aid offers, such as a post-typhoon loan to the Philippines of some 10 billion yen (US$97 million).
ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, elected a year ago next week, has visited the leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries but has yet to arrange a summit with China or South Korea - two countries with whom Japan has rancorous territorial disputes.
Japan typically meets ASEAN nations in conjunction with China and South Korea, but the Tokyo summit, starting Friday, is meant to commemorate Japan's 40-year ties with the group and does not include the usual “ASEAN+3” participants.
The intent is not to exclude China, Japan insists. But maritime disputes and China's air zone “would definitely be discussed,” as Japan has put them on the agenda, said a senior Philippines diplomat.