Japan, wary of China, boosts ties with ASEAN

Nusa Dua Fri Nov 18, 2011 2:39am EST

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Nusa Dua (Reuters) - Japan on Friday pledged assistance to Southeast Asia's infrastructure projects worth $25 billion and called for a multilateral forum to discuss maritime cooperation across Asia, in an implicit challenge to China's clout in the region.

Japan, worried about its declining regional and global role, wants to deepen ties with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as China, which surpassed Japan as the world's No.2 economy, becomes a vital player in the region.

At a summit with leaders from the 10-member ASEAN, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda offered support for 33 flagship infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, using government aid and credit as well as private-sector finances, a Japanese foreign ministry official told reporters.

"It will create some 2 trillion yen ($25 billion) worth of business opportunities," the official said.

The move comes as China, which separately held a meeting with ASEAN leaders on Friday, offered $10 billion in loans to the regional grouping.

The Japan-ASEAN summit took place ahead of the East Asia Summit (EAS), which brings together ASEAN leaders and eight dialogue partners -- Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, the United States and Russia, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

Maritime security will be front and center when the EAS leaders meet on Saturday, with territorial disputes in the South China Sea -- a crucial shipping lane believed to contain valuable oil and minerals -- at the heart of tensions.

Beijing wants to resolve the dispute through bilateral negotiations but other claimants -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei -- prefer a multilateral approach, which opens the way for an indirect role for the United States.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said on Friday that "outside forces" had no excuse to get involved, offering a veiled warning to the United States and others not to stick their noses into the sensitive issue.

MULTILATERAL EFFORTS

In a move that could put pressure on China, Noda proposed holding a multilateral conference on maritime cooperation, which will be open to EAS government officials as well as private-sector experts.

In a joint declaration for enhancing their strategic partnership, Japan and Southeast Asian leaders also said they would "promote and deepen ASEAN-Japan cooperation on maritime security and maritime safety in the region in accordance with universally-agreed principles of international law."

Crude oil from the Middle East is shipped through the South China Sea to Japan.

But the Japanese official said Tokyo has no intention to interfere with the South China Sea conflict and called for efforts to resolve the dispute.

"We believe it is important that they seek a peaceful resolution in a transparent matter based on international law."

As China grows in confidence and military power, Tokyo has recently boosted defense cooperation with Southeast Asia.

In September, Japan agreed with the Philippines to strengthen ties between their coast guards and naval forces, while in October it agreed to boost defense cooperation with Vietnam.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. ($1 = 76.9850 Japanese yen)

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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