SINGAPORE - Continuing its stepped-up engagement in the region, Japan yesterday proposed setting up an initiative to enhance maritime and aerial security as well as improve the capability to respond to disasters.
Speaking on the second day of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security summit, Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani suggested the initiative to promote common rules and laws at sea and in the air; maritime and aerial security to protect regional waters; and the ability to respond quickly to disasters such as the recent Nepal earthquake.
Mr Nakatani was quick to dispel any suspicion of Japan's intentions, suggesting the name Shangri-La Dialogue Initiative or SDI. This SDI, he said, was not the same as the acronym for the United States Strategic Defence Initiative, a Cold War-era missile defence system meant to protect the US from nuclear attacks.
"The SDI I propose today is… an SDI in which we work together to tackle security issues of the 21st century," he stressed.
Mr Nakatani's proposal was received positively by countries in the region, with Vietnamese Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh saying that while he does not have a clear understanding of it yet, "any initiative or idea based on international law that will help build peace and stability in the region is welcome".
Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen concurred. "In principle, everyone would agree (to it). How it's done, at what pace, we will leave it to the various fora."
He added that "all countries agreed" with Mr Nakatani's point that momentum was needed not only to establish a rules-based consensus and system which everyone wants, but also to infuse it with a spirit of co-operation and collaboration.
However, a Chinese international relations expert, Professor Jia Qingguo, who is attending the summit, said it might be premature to talk about such an initiative given the differences on the ground.
"It's quite idealistic because to build this, you need concerned states to have consensus on issues. Theoretically it is very good but the problem is, on specific issues, do you have consensus?"
He added that the problem with the Asia-Pacific's security architecture is that it is largely supported by two-party alliances. This works to exclude countries like Russia and China.
It would be ideal to build a security architecture that does not exclude others and is multilateral in nature.
However, he said, there is a need first to reach consensus on security issues through negotiation and dialogue before there is any possibility of building an SDI.
Mr Nakatani's proposal furthers the increasing engagement of Japan in the region since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in 2012.
In Mr Abe's keynote address at last year's Shangri-La Dialogue, he said Japan would play "a more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain".
Yesterday, Mr Nakatani also accused China - without naming it - of trying to change the status quo in the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea where Tokyo and Beijing are tussling over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Mr Nakatani also deflected a question on whether he would personally apologise for Japan's wartime past, saying only that his country had felt remorse and that Japanese must not avert their eyes from the suffering that was caused.
Analysts have said Japan's unwillingness to apologise for its wartime actions prevents it from playing a greater role in the region.
Impose greater cost on China if tensions rise: McCain
The United States must work with allies and partners to "impose a greater cost" on China if it continues to increase tensions in the South China Sea, said Senator John McCain, chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
Speaking yesterday on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Mr McCain, who is leading a bipartisan team of senators, said he had written to Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to not invite China to this year's Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) military drill, a major multinational exercise.
China took part in Rimpac for the first time last year.
The 78-year-old senator, a Vietnam War hero, also said it would be "a serious mistake" for the US if it did not show defiance over Chinese reclamation efforts in the South China Sea by sending its warplanes within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands that Beijing had built.
"That will be de facto recognition of Chinese sovereignty over these reclaimed lands, which is actually international waters."
Still, although tensions in the South China Sea are heating up, an outright confrontation between China and ASEAN countries can be avoided, "particularly with a united ASEAN in partnership with the US (to show) the Chinese that this is not a productive exercise they are engaged in".
His comments come on the back of reports that China placed military hardware on reclaimed reefs in the Spratly Islands. The hardware has since been removed.
Mr McCain added that the US$425 million (S$572 million) plan, dubbed the South-east Asia Maritime Security Initiative, will beef up the maritime capabilities of South-east Asian countries.
Speaking to reporters separately, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said it would be good if the initiative increases awareness among countries to respond peacefully.
"One hopes that it should not be used to raise temperatures and it has to be done in the context of a framework which still pushes for the peaceful resolution of disputes," Dr Ng said.
This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.