JAKARTA, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pointing a finger at China, said on Friday that disputes plaguing Asia over who owns strings of tiny island groups in the region, had to be resolved legally.
Tokyo's relations with Beijing have chilled over the past few months because of bitter arguments over the ownership of islets in the East China Sea, enough to damage Japan's exports to its giant neighbour, home to the world's second largest economy.
China has also been at odds with several other governments in the region, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, over separate groups of potentially energy-rich islands in the South China Sea, an issue which has caused rare public spats within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"There is no question that a rising China is a plus for Japan economically. It is also important for China to behave in a responsible manner in the international society," Abe told reporters in Jakarta at the end of his first overseas visit since becoming prime minister.
Abe ended his trip - which also took him to Vietnam and Thailand - earlier than scheduled to return to Tokyo because of the hostage crisis in Algeria in which 14 Japanese workers are unaccounted for.
The trip was seen as a push by Abe to boost relations with Southeast Asia, home to 600 million people and combined economies worth $2 trillion, which he hopes will help counterbalance the economic and military strength of China and provide Japan's limping economy with new sources of growth.
By leaving early, Abe missed giving what had been billed as a policy speech on his new government's approach to Southeast Asia.
But at the news conference he listed five principles of his ASEAN diplomacy, including an "open ocean, ruled not by power but by law ... and we and ASEAN will protect this with all our might", he said.
It was a concern echoed by his host, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose country has no claim on any of the disputed islands but which has frequently expressed worries about the potential for the disputes to turn into military conflict.
"If there are any issues, whether in the South China Sea or East Asia or any part of Asia, the solution must be peaceful, not using military force and referring to international laws," Yudhoyono told reporters. (Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Ron Popeski)