As Asia frets over China, warmer welcome likely for Japan PM's push

SINGAPORE/TOKYO Thu May 29, 2014 5:46am EDT

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo May 15, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

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SINGAPORE/TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's message of a bigger global security role for Japan when he speaks at a regional forum this week is likely to find a receptive audience as concerns grow in Asia about China - although some will refrain from clapping too loud for fear of offending Beijing.

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 said.

WARY NATIONS

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.

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 Gopalakrishnan)

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