Japan and Asean nations seek 'freedom of overflight'

A Chinese military plane H-6 bomber flies through airspace between Okinawa prefecture's main island and the smaller Miyako island in southern Japan, out over the Pacific, in handout photo taken 27 October 2013 by Japan Air Self-Defence Force and released by the Joint Staff Office of the defence ministry of Japan Image copyright Reuters
Image caption China's unilateral declaration of an air defence zone over the East China Sea - which includes disputed islands - has made its neighbours' hackles rise

Japan and SE Asian leaders have pledged to work together to ensure "freedom of overflight" in the region, in a move seen as a mild rebuke to China.

The announcement came at a summit in Tokyo, weeks after China's declaration of a new air defence zone overlapping areas claimed by Japan and South Korea.

Japan has been rallying support from 10 Asean nations, some of whom also have territorial disputes with China.

Earlier, PM Shinzo Abe unveiled a $20bn (£12bn) package of aid and loans.

It is part of Japan's apparent efforts to court its southern neighbours against a backdrop of Chinese expansion in the region.

The Tokyo summit marks 40 years of Japan's ties with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).

Indonesia said good China-Japan ties were "critical" for the region.

'Unimpeded commerce'

Japanese and Asean leaders "agreed to enhance co-operation in ensuring freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety", said a passage in their statement quoted by AFP news agency.

The statement does not single out any particular country but is thought to be an allusion to the air defence zone above the East China Sea - the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) - unilaterally declared by China last month.

China had said that aircraft flying through the ADIZ - which covers an area containing disputed islands not controlled by China - must follow its rules, including filing flight plans and identifying themselves.

But it insists the ADIZ is not a no-flight zone.

The statement also refers "to 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".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Commentators say Japan is trying to court its southern neighbours in an apparent bid to counter China's growing economic and military might

Mr Abe's financial package will be spread over five years, and will mostly take the form of concessional loans.

It will focus on development in the Mekong river region, which stretches from China in the north down through south-east Asia, and fund transport projects.

He said he wanted to build a future of Asia "where laws, rather than power, rule".

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said good relations between China and Japan were "critical to the future" of the region.

"Indonesia is deeply concerned at the prospect of the disputes erupting into open conflicts, which will have adverse impacts on all countries in the region," he said.

The Philippines, which is involved in an ongoing row with China over islands in the South China Sea, said it was committed to freedom of flight in international airspace without specifically mentioning China.

Zone defied

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, asked about the summit on Thursday, said the relevant countries should work to maintain regional stability.

The countries "in developing their relations, should not target third parties or hurt third-party interests", he said.

Military aircraft from the US, Japan and South Korea have defied the ADIZ, flying unannounced through the area.

Washington has called China's declaration of an ADIZ a bid to unilaterally change the status quo in the region. There are fears a similar zone will be declared above the resource-rich South China Sea, which China largely claims as its own.

Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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