Japan’s Abe vows sea help to Philippines amid China row

MANILA - Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged increased maritime cooperation with the Philippines on Saturday amid growing territorial disputes with regional rival China.

"For Japan, the Philippines is a strategic partner with whom we share fundamental values and many strategic interests," Abe told a joint news conference with Philippine president Benigno Aquino after their meeting in Manila.

"In order to further reinforce this relationship...we confirm continued assistance to the capacity-building of the Philippine coastguard."

Abe's overnight visit came as tensions have steadily risen between China and Japan, which accuses its neighbour of sending an increasing number of ships to exert its claim over unpopulated Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea.

The Philippines has also charged that China is asserting claims in the conflict-riven South China Sea.

Japan earlier this year announced it would extend yen loans to allow the Philippines to purchase 10 Japanese patrol vessels for its coastguard.

The poorly-equipped Filipino coast guard and navy have been at the forefront of tense encounters with navy and maritime surveillance vessels from China, which claims most of the South China Sea including areas close to the Filipino coast.

China seized the Scarborough Shoal, a South China Sea outcrop just 230 kilometres (140 miles) east of the main Philippine island of Luzon, last year after Manila backed down from a lengthy stand-off.

This year the Philippines has complained about the presence of Chinese navy vessels near Filipino-held Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly islands.

"The Prime Minister and I agreed to strengthen maritime cooperation which is a pillar of our strategic partnership," Aquino said Saturday.

"We reviewed the security challenges that confront our nations and pledged to cooperate in advancing our common advocacy for responsible action from international players.

"We believe this can be done by upholding the rule of law in international affairs and finding just and peaceful solutions to our territorial disputes and maritime concerns."

Abe said Saturday he intends to use his party's decisive victory in the upper house of the Japanese parliament to pursue his vision of Tokyo's role in the region, many parts of which were under brutal Japanese occupation in World War II.

"Against this backdrop I intend to further proceed with strategic diplomacy which will contribute to regional and global peace and security," he said.

"I intend to attach particular importance to our relationship with ASEAN."

Association of Southeast Asian Nations members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as claims from China and Taiwan.

Abe earlier pledged to ease limits on the military in Japan's pacifist, post-war constitution and stand up to China over their East China Sea dispute.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, who visited the Philippines last month, said the two countries would cooperate "in terms of the defence of remote islands... as well as protection of maritime interests".