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Japan-ASEAN call for freedom of air and seas, with tensions high over China

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd L) raises a toast with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (L) and other ASEAN countries' leaders during
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd L) raises a toast with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (L) and other ASEAN countries' leaders during

By Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and Southeast Asian countries called on Saturday for freedom of the air and sea and urged that disputes be resolved peacefully, amid concerns about Chinese military assertiveness that has raised regional tensions.

China's recent announcement of an air defense zone that covers islands in the East China Sea, which are controlled by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing, triggered protests from Japan, United States and South Korea.

China is also locked in territorial rows with other Asian nations over wide swathes of the South China Sea, including waters claimed by several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Beijing has said it might set up a similar air defense zone there.

"We underscored the importance of maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in the region and promoting maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, exercise of self-restraint and resolution of disputes by peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law," said a statement issued at a summit of Japanese and ASEAN leaders in Tokyo.

The statement did not refer to China's new air defense zone, but did note that Japan welcomed consultations between ASEAN and China on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

China has a hefty economic presence in the region and many ASEAN members are reluctant to directly challenge Beijing.

The heightened tensions with China have raised concerns that an minor incident in the disputed seas could quickly escalate.

U.S. and Chinese warships narrowly avoid collision in the South China Sea last week, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Friday.

Both Japan and China in recent months have scrambled aircraft over the disputed seas and conducted naval patrols.

"RULE OF LAW"

The Japan-ASEAN summit is the centerpiece of a three-day regional gathering officially billed as celebrating 40 years of diplomatic ties.

"I would like to build an Asia Pacific future that respects each other's cultures and construct an economic system that is realized not by force, but by rule of law and our efforts," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the start of the summit with the 10 ASEAN countries.

Chinese state media kept up the invective against Japan's complaints over the air space zone on Friday, with the official Xinhua news agency saying Abe was going to "stage again its China-is-to-blame game" at the ASEAN summit.

"It is believed that anyone with only half a brain knows that it is Japan who intentionally set the region on fire in the first place," Xinhua said in an English-language commentary.

Abe has visited all 10 ASEAN nations during his year in office, a diplomatic campaign underlined by hefty aid and growing private investment by Japanese firms hoping to avoid rising costs and the potential risks of China.

On Saturday, Japan announced 2 trillion yen ($19.39 billion) in official development assistance to the grouping, including 300 billion yen for disaster management cooperation.

A day earlier, Tokyo gave the Philippines 6.6 billion yen to provide patrol ships, along with a special post-typhoon loan, and announced currency swap deals with five Southeast Asian nations.

ASEAN groups Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Brunei.

($1 = 103.1400 Japanese yen)

(Reporting by Elaine Lies and Mari Saito; Editing by Michael Perry and Linda Sieg)

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