VIENTIANE -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tacitly warned Southeast Asian leaders Wednesday against making too many concessions to China, engaging in a diplomatic tug of war with Beijing ahead of Thursday's East Asia Summit.
"I expect ASEAN to play a leading role in creating stability and prosperity in the region by following the rule of law," Abe said Wednesday at a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The comment earned calls of agreement from some present.
He expressed deep concern about "continued attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in the South and East China seas over the past few months."
"The dispute itself is a matter for the countries involved, but the South China Sea is a vitally important sea lane for Japan," he said, countering Chinese President Xi Jinping's assertion at talks between the pair Monday that unrelated countries should not interfere.
The Japanese prime minister noted that a July ruling by an international arbitration tribunal denying Chinese claims in the South China Sea is binding under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. "Having both China and the Philippines abide by the decision would lead to a peaceful resolution of the dispute," he said, implicitly rebuking Beijing for its refusal to do so.
ASEAN's deep economic ties to China have led some member countries to distance themselves from the spat. Abe warned against too much accommodation, saying that Japan "welcomes dialogue between ASEAN and China, but it should be based on international law and built on the assumptions of demilitarizing the South China Sea and maintaining self-restraint."
These appeals are part of Abe's strategy of rousing international opinion in a bid to check Chinese provocations near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyu. Another likely factor is waning U.S. influence as President Barack Obama nears the end of his term.
But at a Wednesday meeting of leaders from ASEAN, Japan, China and South Korea -- including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang -- Abe merely advocated following the "three principles of the rule of law at sea" that he has proposed before. He plans to address the Senkaku and South China Sea issues at the East Asia Summit, which Obama will attend, a source at the talks said.
Meanwhile, Li sought to win over ASEAN leaders with hints of economic assistance Wednesday, arguing that China's relationship with the bloc consists of more than just the South China Sea row. He pledged to firm up a code of conduct soon that will restrict unilateral activity in the South China Sea. This would represent a concession to ASEAN, given that Beijing has stalled on discussion of concrete rules since agreeing in 2013 to begin talks.
Beijing had similarly sought to head off talk of the South China Sea dispute ahead of the recent Group of 20 meeting in Hangzhou, China, by contending that economic issues were more important. The chairman's statement issued Wednesday after the ASEAN summit did not mention the tribunal's ruling. But security issues likely will be high on the agenda at the East Asia Summit with both Japan and the U.S. attending the meeting.