ST award a great honour, says Japan's PM

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it was a "great honour" to be a joint winner of The Straits Times' Asian of the Year award, noting that it was a recognition of both his push to engage ASEAN and Japan's comeback in the past year.

Speaking at a press conference to wrap up a summit marking 40 years of ASEAN-Japan ties, Mr Abe said he felt very touched by the award, which was conferred on him and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week.

"I believe that this is a recognition of my thoughts towards ASEAN and Japan's contribution to the region," said Mr Abe. "The revival of Japan - Japan is back - and the revival of the Japanese economy, I believe, has been welcomed."

Instead of picking a single winner this year, The Straits Times chose both leaders to honour the domestic reforms and the regional charm offensive they have embarked on since assuming top leadership positions in their respective countries last year.

Mr Abe, who has visited all 10 ASEAN countries this year, showed no let-up in his outreach efforts on Saturday. He announced a slew of new initiatives, ranging from defence to aid and cultural exchanges, with an eye to enhancing Japan's engagement with South-east Asian countries.

Mr Abe also pledged two trillion yen (S$24.3 billion) in development assistance to ASEAN over five years and unveiled a cultural exchange policy that would involve sending more than 3,000 specialists to South-east Asia to teach the Japanese language.

The Japanese Premier further proposed holding an informal meeting among ASEAN defence ministers to discuss humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and non-traditional security challenges.

ASEAN "has always been at the centre of my diplomacy", Mr Abe said at the press conference on Saturday.

The one diplomatic breakthrough that has eluded him so far is in troubled Sino-Japanese relations. Ties between the two neighbours have deteriorated in the past year due to territorial disputes in the East China Sea, as well as sharp disagreements over China's new air defence zone.

Asked if ties with Beijing are likely to improve next year and if he would make the first move to open dialogue with China, Mr Abe said: "My door is always open towards dialogue. Even if there are problems, we have to control the situation so that it will not influence the overall relationship.

"I think we have to go back to our basic principle: mutually beneficial, strategic relationship between Japan and China."

In a joint statement on Saturday, Japan and ASEAN pledged to enhance cooperation in maritime security and "free and safe maritime navigation and aviation".

They also emphasised the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety in line with "universally recognised principles of international law".

The statement, however, steered clear of rebuking China's conduct in the South China Sea territorial disputes or mentioning its contentious air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea.

The United States and Japan have strongly criticised China's ADIZ in past weeks, calling it a unilateral act which changes the status quo in the region.

Mr Abe repeated some of those criticisms on Saturday, if indirectly. Commenting on the maritime disputes between China and four ASEAN countries in the South China Sea, he said: "All relevant countries should not take measures to unilaterally change the status quo by coercive measures... and they should comply with the relevant international laws".

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