TOKYO - Mr Shinzo Abe will use a speech at an Asian defence forum this weekend to offer Japan as a counterweight to the growing might of China in a region increasingly riven by territorial disputes.
The Japanese prime minister will tell the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue that Tokyo and its partner the United States stand ready to jointly bolster security cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported.
He will stop short of singling out China, the paper added, but there will be little doubt about where he thinks the blame lies for the various escalating disputes in the South China Sea, and Japan's own battle with Beijing over East China Sea islands.
Mr Abe "might announce his aim to play more active roles in Asia by using the Japan-US alliance as the foundation," said Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.
The right-wing ideologue who has set about reshaping the rules of engagement for Japan's powerful, though little-used military as he pushes a doctrine he has dubbed "proactive pacifism", has offered support - both practical and spiritual - to Manila and Hanoi, in the form of coastguard vessels and public pronouncements.
Both are engaged in corrosive territorial rows with Beijing, and both are heavily outgunned by China, whose military has enjoyed double-digit budget rises annually for more than a decade.
Mr Abe will be hoping that the more timid countries in the region will see that succour as a sign of Japan's willingness to engage, offering them an alternative to Chinese power from the only country with the military clout.
No Abe meeting with Xi
During his keynote speech at the three-day Asia Security Summit, starting on Friday, Mr Abe will urge China to respect the rule of law, Kyodo News said, at a time that the impression is growing in the region that the world's number two economy is happy to throw its weight around.
Mr Abe will call for "constructive discussions", said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, to take the heat out of rows that pit China against a number of ASEAN countries, as well as Tokyo against Beijing.
"Considering the heightening situations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, we hope that various constructive discussions will take place toward this region's peace and safety" at the forum, he said.
Since coming to power in late 2012, Mr Abe has assiduously courted ASEAN, visiting all 10 member countries at least once.
He has still not been to China, nor met with Xi Jinping, its president.
Some ASEAN members have been bolder than others in standing up to China; Vietnam and the Philippines have both proved willing to push back, despite their relative military weakness that would likely see them squashed in any tussle.
Others have been less keen to put their heads above the parapet for fear of angering the regional paymaster.