By Manuel Mogato
MANILA Dec 10 A stronger Japan would act as a counterbalance to the military rise of China, something that is worrying smaller Asian nations as tensions grow over conflicting territorial claims in the region, the Philippines said on Monday.
Rivals claims to the South China Sea, and its likely oil and gas wealth, have made it Asia's biggest potential flashpoint. China claims the largest area, putting it at loggerheads in particular in recent months with Vietnam and the Philippines.
Other claimants are Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
"(We are looking for Japan) to support the peaceful process of resolving the issues here and to be one of the partners as far as security alliances and partnership is concerned," Foreign Ministry spokesman Raul Hernandez said in a statement.
He said no one country has the capacity to address the security requirements of the region, and it is in the Philippines' interest to have stronger alliances.
The comments echo those of Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario in an interview with the Financial Times newspaper published on Monday, when he said that Japan "could be a significant balancing factor."
The dispute is testing the unity of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and also dragged the United States into the debate just as it is pushing to raise an already strong military profile in the region.
On Tuesday, the Philippines will hold strategic talks with the United States, its closest security ally, on ways to strengthen their alliance, including increasing rotational presence of U.S. forces in its former colony.
Carlos Sorreta, foreign ministry assistant secretary for American affairs, said the increased U.S. presence in Asia and Pacific region "sends the right signal that states must behave in a reasonable and lawful way".
Last week, Vietnam claimed that Chinese fishing boats sabotaged one of its oil and gas research vessels, while the Philippines and China were involved in a two-month-long standoff earlier this year at Scarborough Shoal near the Philippine coast.
Adding to tension, authorities in China's Hainan island have passed laws allowing police to search vessels deemed to be operating illegally in what it considers its Hainan's waters, drawing protests from its neighbours and concern from the United States.
Asked about the Philippine comments on Japan as a balancing force, China's foreign ministry said the idea of "containment" was out of date.
"Now it's no longer the era of the Cold War. The issue of one country containing another one does not exist," spokesman Hong Lei told a regular briefing.
Another Philippine foreign ministry official said Manila does not share the concerns of some others in the region of Japan's military past because it has shown in the years since World War Two that it has become a democratic and responsible member of the international community.
Japan will hold a general election on Dec. 16 that is expected to be won by the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). LDP leader Shinzo Abe has promised to loosen limits on the military in Japan's pacifist constitution and stand up to China over disputed isles in the East China Sea.