Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Friday to support efforts by Vietnam and the Philippines to resolve their territorial disputes with China, making a veiled criticism of the Asian powerhouse.
In a speech at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, Abe said the rule of law is what makes the Asia-Pacific region stable, adding countries should adhere to international law, avoid resorting to force or coercion, and resolve conflicts peacefully.
"My government strongly supports the efforts by the Philippines calling for a resolution to the dispute in the South China Sea," Abe said. "We likewise support Vietnam in its efforts to resolve issues through dialogue."
"Movement to consolidate changes to the status quo by aggregating one fait accompli after another can only be strongly condemned as something that contravenes the spirit of these three principles," Abe said.
The speech, the first by a Japanese prime minister at the forum also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, came amid a recent spike in regional tensions as China and Vietnam have clashed over Beijing's deployment of an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Abe expressed hope that a code of conduct will be established soon in the South China Sea, adding Japan is studying the possibility of providing patrol ships to Vietnam as part of its "utmost efforts" to help ASEAN countries ensure the security of seas and skies.
Tokyo and Beijing remain at odds over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, with Chinese fighter jets recently flying very close to Japanese Self-Defense Forces aircraft in the area.
To avoid contingencies at sea and in the skies, Abe urged China to keep its promise made in 2007 to set up a communications mechanism, and pursue dialogue.
"We do not welcome dangerous encounters by fighter aircraft and vessels at sea. What we must exchange are words," Abe said. "Should we not meet at the table, first exchanging smiles as we sit down to have discussions?"
Abe is trying to bolster Japan's defense capabilities as part of his broader remodeling of the country's security architecture to better address China's growing assertiveness and North Korea's missile and nuclear development programs.
At the same time, he is strengthening bilateral ties not just with Japan's traditional ally the United States but also with Southeast Asian countries and Australia to counterbalance the rise of China.
"Taking our alliance with the United States as the foundation and respecting our partnership with ASEAN, Japan will spare no effort to make regional stability, peace, and prosperity into something rock-solid."
The Shangri-La Dialogue is being held as domestic debate intensifies over whether Japan should exercise the right to collective self-defense, in what would be a major departure from its postwar pacifist policy.
Japan's move to lift the ban on defending allies under armed attack has unnerved some Asian neighbors such as China and South Korea that suffered from Japan's wartime brutality. Experts say how to dispel concerns that Tokyo may be reverting to militarism is an important task for Abe.
Any exchange of words between Tokyo and Beijing will be closely watched, the experts say, especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the creation of a new Asian security structure including Russia but not the United States.
Abe and Xi have not held summit talks amid conflicting claims over the islands in the East China Sea and differing perceptions of history. Abe's controversial visit last December to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine raised the ire of China and South Korea.
Responding to a question from the audience, the Japanese prime minister repeated that his visit was to "make a pledge never to wage war" and to "pray for the souls of those who died for the country." Japan will continue to be a pacifist state that makes "proactive" contributions to global peace, he told the forum.
Accompanying Abe, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera is expected to call on China in a speech on Saturday to exercise restraint and ensure the rule of law.
Such a message was confirmed when Onodera and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with their Australian counterpart David Johnston. The defense chiefs of Japan, the United States and South Korea will also hold talks on the sidelines of the forum.
On a bilateral basis, Onodera will meet with Johnston, along with the defense chiefs of Britain and Vietnam.
The Shangri-La Dialogue is a forum for defense and military chiefs from the Asia-Pacific region and Europe to discuss security challenges and cooperation.
U.S. President Barack Obama said this week that the United States will support ASEAN countries in their efforts to ensure maritime security, even as Washington has maintained that it does not take a position on the territorial disputes.
Amid skepticism about the United States' "rebalancing" to Asia, Obama tried to assure Abe during their summit in April that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the bilateral security treaty that obliges the United States to defend Japan.