While Japan has a festering dispute with China over islands in the
sea between the two Asian economic giants, tensions have also spiked
between Beijing and several Southeast Asian nations over rival
claims to the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.
Abe is to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on
Friday, a forum for defense and security experts from Asia,
including the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the
United States and Australia.
The conservative prime minister is expected to explain his
stepped-up push to lift a ban that has kept Japan's military from
fighting overseas since World War Two.
"Tensions are rising in the Asia-Pacific. I want to send a message
to the world about Japan's pro-active contribution to peace based on
international cooperation," Kyodo news agency quoted Abe as telling
a parliamentary panel on Thursday.
Despite harsh memories of Japan's wartime occupation of much of
Southeast Asia, several countries in the region may view the message
favorably because of China's increasing assertiveness.
"The ASEAN countries which have disputes with China will support
him," said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of
Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
"Japan can be much more forthright on its criticism of China than
ASEAN as a grouping can be."
Some of the most trenchant criticism of China has come from the
Philippines and more recently, Vietnam.
Earlier this month, China parked a huge oil rig in waters that are
also claimed by Vietnam, and scores of ships from the two countries
have been squaring off in its vicinity. On Tuesday, a Vietnamese
fishing boat sank, prompting Hanoi and Beijing to trade barbs over
who was to blame.
China has also angered the Philippines with reclamation work on a
disputed island and the building of what appears to be an airstrip.
"We welcome Japan's contribution to the enhancement of security and
stability in the region, including its plan to play a larger
security role in the region," a senior Philippine defense official
Other countries such as Malaysia, however, remain wary of angering
China because of deep economic ties. Smaller nations in China's
immediate neighborhood, like Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, are also
unlikely to openly show solidarity with Japan.
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Abe's speech is also expected to stress respect for the rule of law
and opposition to changing the status quo by force - typically
Japanese code for criticizing Beijing.
Chinese delegates at the dialogue, led by the tough and articulate
former deputy foreign minister Fu Ying, are expected to make the
case that Japan, not China, threatens regional security, because of
Abe's efforts to stretch the limits of Japan's post-war, pacifist
constitution and bolster the military.
"China has elevated its representation at the dialogue, which has
always been weaker than the other major players. I’m sure the
decision to invite Abe played a role in that,” Cook said.
Abe has made clear that he wants to re-interpret the constitution's
pacifist Article 9 to enable Japan to exercise its right of
collective self-defense, or militarily aiding a friendly country
under attack. Previous governments have said Japan has the right
under international law but that exercising it exceeds the bounds of
the war-renouncing Article 9.
On Thursday, he said he hoped for a decision in time to reflect the
change in an update of U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines the
allies want to finish by year-end.
Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is trying to persuade its
more dovish coalition partner to agree to the historic policy
change, which surveys show a majority of Japanese voters oppose.
"At this time, he has to keep saying it's about the defense of Japan
and our citizens, but in Singapore, he should be saying it's about
regional security," said Narushige Michishita at the National
Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
"He'll be walking on a tightrope."
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Raju
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