Japan, ASEAN to meet as China's air defense zone issue looms

Leaders of Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will gather for a summit in Tokyo from Friday, with Japan hoping to rally ASEAN support to rein in China's growing assertiveness over airspace.

Japanese diplomats have been negotiating with their ASEAN counterparts to hammer out a joint statement including a reference to ensuring freedom of flight in international airspace, in response to Beijing's Nov. 23 declaration of a controversial air defense identification zone over the East China Sea, where Japan and China are at odds over a group of uninhabited islands.

The weekend summit comes at a crucial time when attention is focused on how Japan and ASEAN will handle the ADIZ issue, not only for Japan's security interest but to counter Beijing's intention to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea where China and some ASEAN member states are mired in overlapping territorial claims.

Japanese officials said that with China "flooding" ASEAN nations with economic aid, Japan is keen to use the Tokyo summit commemorating 40 years of friendly and cooperative Japan-ASEAN ties as an opportunity to play catch-up to China.

Japan plans to pledge 300 billion yen in official development assistance to the 10-member ASEAN for disaster prevention, among other forms of assistance, a Japanese government source said.

The summit is characterized as a "wrap-up" of Japan's ASEAN diplomacy, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe having visited all 10 ASEAN nations -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- just 11 months into office.

The summit, the first of its kind to be held in Tokyo since 2003, will kick off with a dinner Abe and his wife Akie will host.

On the fringes of the summit, Abe will meet on Friday with the leaders of the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore, partly to discuss the ADIZ and cooperation in disaster management, as part of his "marathon" bilateral talks with ASEAN nations, the officials said.

Following the main summit talks on Saturday, Japan and ASEAN will issue a joint statement and a document that will map out the "vision" of future Japan-ASEAN ties.

But whether the joint statement will reflect Japan's desired reference to China's ADIZ is uncertain as there are differences within ASEAN members in their approach to China.

Some countries considered "pro-China," such as Cambodia and Laos, may be reluctant to provoke the second-largest economy, while the Philippines and Vietnam, which are locked in territorial disputes of their own with China in the South China Sea, want to be tough on China and are likely to align with Japan.

Analysts view Beijing's attempt to "unilaterally change the status quo" by coercive measures as a way to bolster its claims over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the source of a bitter feud between Japan and China. Beijing claims the islands and calls them Diaoyu.