PHNOM PENH – Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said in talks with his ASEAN counterparts on Wednesday that it was important to maintain a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region, apparently bearing in mind China’s growing maritime assertiveness.
Pushing for Japan’s vision of a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific, Kishi called for a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea to be ‘effective, substantial and consistent with international law’ , said his ministry in a press release.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Beijing are developing the code of conduct to defuse tensions in disputed areas.
The Phnom Penh talks come as Japan aims to further strengthen security relations with the 10-member regional group, and at a time when China is expanding its military influence in the region.
Southeast Asia is a strategically important region that straddles key sea lanes, including the South China Sea, where some of the members have territorial disputes with Beijing.
In Cambodia, new ship repair facilities at Ream Naval Base, located in the Gulf of Thailand, are being built with Chinese financial support. The Cambodian Minister of Defense denied the presence of Chinese forces on the base.
Referring to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Kishi told a press conference after the talks that “unilaterally changing the status quo by force” is not just about Europe and could also occur in the Indo-Pacific in the future.
“We have shared such concern with ASEAN countries,” Kishi said, adding that Japan had specific discussions with them to establish reciprocal partnerships with each country.
Kishi criticized the recent sailing of Chinese and Russian warships near Japan for their “show of force”, warning against actions such as saber tactics against his nation.
The Defense Minister said that since mid-June, Japan had confirmed the passage of five Russian Navy ships sailing south off Hokkaido in the Pacific Ocean and then through the Tsushima Strait, in southwestern Japan, before heading to the Sea of Japan.
He described the actions as “nearly encircling Japan” and said three Chinese navy ships were also following a similar course.
Kishi said he was concerned about “nearly 10 Russian and Chinese ships moving through our country in such a short time on similar routes.”
He said six other Chinese ships passed near the southern island of Okinawa prefecture as they moved from the East China Sea to the Pacific from Tuesday to Wednesday.
“We need to monitor the situation closely,” Kishi said, also noting the recent entry of 29 Chinese warplanes into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The incursion was announced Tuesday by the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense.
Kishi pledged to continue Japan’s security cooperation with ASEAN, including providing defense equipment to bloc members based on their needs, the ministry said.
In the first face-to-face meeting between the defense chiefs of Japan and ASEAN since November 2019, they also discussed strengthening their cybersecurity capabilities, according to the ministry.
Kishi was quoted by the ministry as expressing concern over the situation in Myanmar, saying there has been no improvement since the February 2021 coup that put the nation under military rule. He urged the Myanmar military to immediately stop the violence.
The Japan-ASEAN defense talks were held on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in the Cambodian capital.
ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Kishi was on a two-day visit to Cambodia from Tuesday, when he held separate meetings with his counterparts from Cambodia, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam. Earlier on Wednesday, the Japanese minister met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.