Japan pledges to work with Asean toward free, open, peaceful Indo-Pacific

Japan's new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaking with regional leaders during the virtual Asean-Japan summit on Oct 27, 2021. - AFP

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Making his debut appearance at a high-level meeting with Asean leaders, Japan's new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday (Oct 27) pledged to work together with the regional grouping to ensure a free, open and peaceful Indo-Pacific.

At the Asean-Japan Summit, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also called for greater Asean-Japan cooperation by implementing a joint statement on the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific - a 2019 report laying out the 10 member states' common position amid emerging security discourse promoted by the "Quad" of Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

This statement should build on the principles of Asean centrality, unity and collective commitment to a rules-based multilateral system, in accordance with international law, said Lee.

In his speech, Kishida noted that Japan has consistently and strongly supported these principles. He stressed the importance of freedom of navigation and flight over the South China Sea, along with resolution of disputes in line with international law.

The busy, strategic waterway is a continued source of tension, with China asserting historical sovereignty and chafing at freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US and others.

Kishida also said Japan would lead global efforts to achieve a carbon-neutral world, and called on Asean to work closely with his country here.

On this, Lee said the second iteration of the Asean-Japan Climate Change Action Agenda would strengthen the region's capabilities to address the existential issue as well as decarbonise and implement nature-based solutions.

Kishida also proposed a special Asean-Japan Summit in 2023 to mark the 50th anniversary of relations between both sides.

Describing Japan as a steadfast friend to Asean and a source of support during this difficult pandemic period, Lee cited the adoption of the Asean-Japan Economic Resilience Action Plan in July last year. The plan comprises over 50 projects to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19, among other objectives.

He also noted that Japan has contributed US$50 million (S$67 million) to the Asean Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases, and begun dispatching technical experts to build Asean capabilities to respond to such emergencies.

Kishida also pledged more than 16 million vaccine doses to Asean nations.

Later, at the Asean Plus Three (APT) Summit with China, Japan and South Korea, Lee welcomed the adoption of an Asean Plus Three Leaders' Statement on Mental Health Cooperation, which calls for joint initiatives like workshops on mental well-being in school settings in the first quarter of 2022.

"Beyond the immediate health concerns, the pandemic has taken a toll on our citizens' mental health," said Lee.

"This addresses a pertinent but often overlooked aspect of the wellbeing of our people."

Lee thanked the three partners of Asean for their contributions to the Covid-19 Asean Response Fund, and their respective initiatives to strengthen the region's public health capacities.

Lee said he was looking forward to progress on proposals for an APT Reserve of Medical Supplies for Public Health Emergencies, and an APT Taskforce on Pandemics, both of which would complement Asean's ongoing efforts.

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