TOKYO, December 14, 2013 (AFP) – Japan and Southeast Asian countries agreed Saturday on the importance of freedom in the skies, in the first major gathering of the continent’s leaders since China ramped up regional tensions with a controversial air defence zone. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have their own disputes with China over territory in the East China Sea, and are thought to be receptive to Japanese overtures.
But all 10 members of the bloc, which also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand, have to tread a fine line to avoid irritating China, whose vast economy is vital to the region.
Corey Wallace, a Japan specialist at Auckland University, said Tokyo’s financial assistance to the region would help provide a counterweight where reliance on China could otherwise be the default setting.
“If Japan helps ASEAN in its region-building goals… not only will Japan be seen favourably as a leader, but it will enable ASEAN itself to assert increased independence in the future distribution of power.
“This is in contrast with an ASEAN that is overly reliant on the Chinese economy for trade and investment.
“It is particularly important for Japan to ensure that key geopolitical nations within