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Japan PM begins SE Asia trip, urges open seas, response on Ukraine

Japan’s leader made a veiled but strong statement against Chinese assertiveness as he met Indonesia’s president on Friday at the start of a trip to Southeast Asia and Europe to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific and rally a regional response to the Ukrainian crisis.

Tokyo is also considering giving Indonesia patrol boats so its coast guard could strengthen maritime security, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, amid Chinese pressure on Jakarta over its oil and gas drilling operations in its own exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

“I expressed a strong sense of protest against efforts to change the status quo unilaterally and economic pressures in the East China Sea and South China Sea,” Kishida said, after meeting with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Jakarta.

The Japanese premier’s remarks were a pointed reference to concern over Chinese activities in the region.

Kishida’s eight-day tour will see him visiting “strategic ASEAN partners,” including Vietnam and Thailand.

The prime minister will then proceed to Europe, with stops in Italy and the United Kingdom, both members of the G7 grouping of industrialized countries that also comprises Japan.

Before embarking from Tokyo on his trip, Kishida said at the airport that he would like to “exchange frank opinions on the situation in Ukraine with each of the leaders and confirm their cooperation.”

Indonesia is host of this year’s Group of 20 summit in November, an engagement that has placed Jakarta in a diplomatic bind, amid opposition to the participation of Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine and alleged war crimes there.

On Friday, Jokowi confirmed that Indonesia had invited Ukraine’s president as a guest to the G-20 summit in Bali and that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would also attend.

Kishida said he and Jokowi “exchanged views openly” on the Russian invasion, “which is a clear violation of international law and which we say has shaken the foundations of the international order, including Asia, and must be strongly condemned.”

“Keeping in mind the U.N. resolutions agreed upon by the two countries, I and the president discussed this issue. We have one understanding that a military attack on Ukraine is unacceptable. In any area, sovereignty and territorial integrity should not be interfered with by military force or intimidation,” the Japanese leader said.

Jokowi, for his part, called for all countries to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“The Ukraine war must be stopped immediately,” he said.

A regional ‘reluctance to take sides’

The war in Ukraine has been a divisive issue among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

“Across the region there is a reluctance to take sides and an ambivalence about the concert of democracies lining up in support of Ukraine,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor and director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

Most Southeast Asian countries – Singapore being an exception – have been hesitant to condemn Russia or join international sanctions against Moscow. Japan hopes to consolidate their responses during the prime minister’s visit.

“Kishida will [also] seek to gain understanding of what is at stake and the potential implications for Asia in terms of China’s hegemonic aspirations,” Kingston said.

China’s increasing assertiveness in the East China and South China seas will be high on the agenda, and Kishida said he would discuss with Southeast Asian leaders further cooperation “toward realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific,” and maintaining peace and order.

Stops in Hanoi, Bangkok

In Vietnam, where Kishida will spend less than 24 hours over the weekend, he will meet with both the Vietnamese prime minister and president.

Bilateral talks will focus on post-COVID-19 and security cooperation, Vietnamese media said. Vietnam shares interests with Japan in safeguarding maritime security in the South China Sea where China holds expansive claims and has been militarizing reclaimed islands.

In Thailand, Kishida will hold talks with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha. Thailand is the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit in November.

Bangkok and Tokyo are celebrating the 135th anniversary of diplomatic ties this year, and the two sides are seeking to sign an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology to strengthen cooperation in the security field, according to the Bangkok Post.

Government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said it would be the first official visit of a Japanese prime minister to Thailand since 2013.

In March, Kishida visited India and Cambodia, his first bilateral trips since taking office in October 2021.

Later in May, he will host a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden and a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad.

The White House announced on Wednesday that President Biden would visit South Korea and Japan May 20-24 to advance a “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and to U.S. treaty alliances” with the two countries.

The trip will be Biden’s first one to Asia as president.

“In Tokyo, President Biden will also meet with the leaders of the Quad grouping of Australia, Japan, India, and the United States,” the statement said without disclosing the date.

The Quad is widely seen as countering China’s weight in the region.

China has been sneering at the formation of the Quad, calling it one of the “exclusive cliques detrimental to mutual trust and cooperation among regional countries.”

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Wang Wenbin said that the Quad “is steeped in the obsolete Cold War and zero sum mentality and reeks of military confrontation.”

“It runs counter to the trend of the times and is doomed to be rejected,” he said.

Dandy Koswaraputra in Jakarta contributed to this report for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.