TOKYO Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's most influential aide on Saturday rejected criticism from China that Japan is lurching toward militarism and said Tokyo would keep seeking dialogue with both Beijing and Seoul, ties with which have been badly strained by rows over territory and wartime history.
Sino-Japanese ties, long plagued by China's bitter memories of Tokyo's wartime aggression, have worsened since a feud over disputed East China Sea islands flared in 2012. Relations with South Korea are also badly frayed by a separate territorial row and the legacy of Japan's 1910-1945 colonization.
"For the 69 years since the end of World War Two, we have built the present-day Japan based on the notions of freedom, democracy and peace," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who acts as Japan's top government spokesman and is one of Abe's most trusted aides, told Reuters in an interview.
"They say that Japan is a military power but (the defense budget increase in the year to March) was just 0.8 percent, while China has kept increasing its defense budget by more than 10 percent annually for 20 years," Suga said. "To be called 'militarist' by such a country is completely off the mark."
China's announcement late last year of a new air defense identification zone, including the skies over the disputed isles, increased tensions with Beijing, while Abe's December visit to a controversial shrine for war dead seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past militarism further marred Tokyo's ties with its two Asian neighbors.
Japan's close ally the United States has made clear it is keen to see a dialing down of tensions in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Asia ahead of President Barack Obama's April visit to the region, on Thursday urged Tokyo and Seoul to "put history behind them" and calm tensions in the face of the threat from a volatile North Korea.
Looming large among the issues fraying Japan's relations with South Korea is the question of compensation and an apology to so-called "comfort women", as the women who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels are euphemistically known. Many of those women were Korean.
DOOR TO DIALOGUE
Suga reiterated Japan's stance that the matter of compensation was settled in the framework of a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties. In 1993 Japan's then-government spokesman, Yohei Kono, issued a statement apologizing for the involvement of Japan's military in the brothels.
In 1995, Japan set up a fund to make payments to the women from private contributions, but South Korea says that was not official and so not enough.
Japanese media have speculated about a possible summit between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a international nuclear security summit at The Hague next month, but Suga declined to comment on the prospects.
"China and South Korea are neighboring countries, so the door to dialogue is always open, and while stressing what we must stress, we want to deal with both countries calmly and from a broad perspective," he said.
Suga also said that Tokyo's ties with Washington were solid despite Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where wartime leaders convicted as war criminals are honored along with other war dead.
The United States issued a rare public statement of disappointment after the December pilgrimage, which Abe said was not intended to honor the "Class-A" war criminals enshrined there but to pay his respects to those who died for their country and to promise never again to go to war.
"The U.S.-Japan relationship is not wavering," Suga said.
He cited progress on a plan to relocate a U.S. Marine Corps air base on Japan's Okinawa island, Abe's decision to join talks on Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade pact and Tokyo's decision to join a treaty for cross-border child custody disputes, steps urged when Obama met Abe last February.
The governor of Okinawa has signed off on a plan to relocate the Futenma air base from a crowded part of the southern Japanese island to the less populated city of Nago. But Abe suffered a setback when the incumbent mayor of Nago, who opposes the plan, was re-elected last month.
The central government has nonetheless vowed to go ahead with the controversial relocation plan, which is opposed by many residents who link the U.S. bases with crime, accidents and pollution.
(Editing by Matt Driskill)