SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised stronger ties between Japan and Southeast Asian countries, but fulfilling the pledge will require careful political maneuvering, as he seeks to end the postwar pacifist policy and establish a greater security role amid the rise of an assertive China.
Having made the pledge at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a regional security forum, Abe may need to strike a delicate balance to become a truly "proactive" contributor to peace in the Asia-Pacific region, experts say.
Stronger ties between Japan and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could benefit the region and position Japan to counterbalance China, but are unlikely to be welcomed by the Asian powerhouse, whose relations with Japan remain at the lowest point in years.
In his calibrated keynote speech at the security forum, Abe made a veiled criticism of China and argued that Asia must uphold the rule of law. He threw strong support behind Vietnam and the Philippines in their attempts to resolve their own territorial disputes in the South China Sea, not by force but through peaceful means.
"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," said Abe, who became the first Japanese prime minister to address the forum.
China immediately accused Japan and the United States of staging "provocative actions" against the country, making it the latest instance of the two Asian powers trading barbs on the global stage.
Despite repeated calls for dialogue, Abe has not held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who proposed in May that Asia should have a new security structure that excludes the United States.
Abe's push to remodel Japan's security architecture, which is bound by the pacifist Constitution, has alarmed China, which suffered from Japan's wartime brutality. Abe denies Japan will ever go to war again, even if the country decides to remove a long-standing ban on using the right to collective self-defense, but Beijing has rejected his argument.
"What is clear in Abe's message is that Japan will help ASEAN with capacity-building so the grouping can bolster its own defenses, given that ASEAN countries could be the weak link if we are to create an Asian network to counter China," said Narushige Michishita, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
"Abe did not mention this because the issue is still controversial in Japan, but it's becoming more obvious that one reason why Japan is trying to remove the ban on collective self-defense seems to be working more closely with ASEAN," Michishita added.
Abe has prioritized bolstering the U.S.-Japan security alliance as the security landscape is changing due to China's maritime forays and North Korea's missile and nuclear development.
Bilateral defense cooperation guidelines that define the roles and responsibilities of the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military are expected to be revised by the end of the year. Tokyo and Washington hope a decision will be made by then on whether Japan should defend allies under armed attack in collective self-defense.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave his backing during the Shangri-La Dialogue through Sunday to Abe's bid to "reorient its collective self-defense posture toward actively helping build a peaceful and resilient regional order."
Hagel criticized China in strong language and stressed strong U.S. commitment to the region, as skeptics increasingly question the seriousness of U.S. President Barack Obama's "rebalancing" strategy to Asia.
Debate has continued to revolve around whether the United States, which does not take positions on sovereignty issues, would defend the Japanese-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Within the ASEAN framework, Vietnam and the Philippines have faced off with China in the South China Sea, and experts warn of further escalation of regional tensions.
ASEAN is not a NATO-type military alliance and a regional bloc whose networks are still weak. Experts say some members are much closer to Beijing than to Tokyo.
"Japan is one of the important ASEAN dialogue partners and I think Japan will show us its contributions," an Indonesian government official said on condition of anonymity.
Nevertheless, security expert Michishita says Japan has its work cut out.
"I think ASEAN has yet to be convinced about Japan's commitment," Michishita said. "The real challenge is when China comes into the equation."