TOKYO - Japan and Southeast Asian countries agreed Saturday to strive for freedom of movement 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 cautious show of support for Tokyo in its bitter row with Beijing came as Japan pledged US$20 billion (S$25.11 billion) in aid and grants for the region.
At a summit in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) "agreed to enhance co-operation in ensuring freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety".
The statement will be seen as a mild regional rebuke for China, which has sovereignty disputes with Japan and with four members of the bloc, and has been repeatedly accused of intimidation and coercion.
The gathering also offered encouragement for Abe's more muscular military stance, which some see as a necessary balance to the rising might of China, and which the communique described as a "proactive contribution to peace".
"The ASEAN Leaders looked forward to Japan's efforts in contributing constructively to peace, stability, and development in the region," the statement said.
China and South Korea frequently invoke the horrors of the last century in warnings against a more engaged Japanese military, but Tokyo's relations with Southeast Asia - much of which it also brutally invaded - are less coloured by history.
The endorsements for Japan came at the end of a special summit to mark its 40 years of ties with ASEAN, which saw Tokyo promise two trillion yen for the region over five years.
The meeting was the first significant gathering of Asian leaders since China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea last month, including the airspace above the Tokyo-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyus.
At the time, Beijing said all aircraft entering the zone have to submit flight plans and obey orders issued by Chinese authorities, in an announcement that was widely criticised as inflammatory, and immediately flouted by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.