TOKYO: Japan has strongly encouraged Asean nations, particularly Malaysia, to speak up and make a firm stand on their sovereign rights to disputed territories in the South China Sea (SCS).
Making the call, Japan's former deputy foreign minister Hitoshi Tanaka said that “Silence could no longer be golden” and it is high time Asean countries, as stakeholders, put their foot down courageously.
"Japan has great concerns over developments and tensions in the South and even North China Sea, as it can have severe repercussions for maritime nations in the region.
"Hence, Japan is committed towards the well-being of Asean which has the potential to be in the 'driver's seat' in the region even though the countries in the pact are not as economically or militarily strong as the larger aggressor nations.
"Someone needs to remind the super powers to pay greater attention to Asean which has a strategic role in ensuring peace and stability in the SCS and Pacific," said Tanaka, who is now the Institute for International Strategy chairman at the Japan Research Institute Limited.
He was referring to China's attempt to claim all or parts of islands, shoals and reefs in the Paracels, Scarborough Shoal, the Spratlys and Natuna Islands by plotting its 'nine-dash line'.
Malaysia is laying claim on parts of the Spratlys along with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei; while Vietnam disputes the Paracels and Scarborough, with Indonesia facing challenges on Natuna.
Japan, too, he said, has issues with China over the Senkaku islands, with South Korea over the Takeshima islands, and with Russia over the Kuriles (or northern territories) and Sakhalin in the Kamchatka peninsula.
Tanaka said Japan does not want to see an arms race in the region.
"If a country beefs up its military force with more assets, other countries will do likewise.
"A military build-up is not the right solution to enforce security, rather the option should be to employ diplomacy, multi-lateral cooperation and confidence-building measures," he said.
Tanaka warned that should China assert aggression in an attempt to seize the Senkaku islands owned by Japan, it could result in a war.
He acknowledged that China is growing rapidly economically and is instituting its influence globally through its investment development programmes.
"But a nation's or region's security cannot be compromised by economic prosperity," he cautioned.
Tanaka added that China's economic war with the United States, the riots in the special administrative region of Hong Kong and the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) from Wuhan In Hubei province has jolted its progress, with a declining economy and tighter domestic market.
"Hong Kong, which prevailed under British rule for decades, is not happy under China's direct administration.
"China realises it simply cannot use military force over Hong Kong, which can turn nightmarish.
"It also could have a spillover effect on Taiwan, which China is attempting to reclaim, making the former to become more independent.
"It is a very dicey and tense situation with a lot of repercussions which can impede China's economic growth," he said.
Tanaka added that the US is also facing trying times with its president Donald Trump facing stiff competition in the run-up to their national election.
Many of the US' allies are also having differing opinions, thus, further complicating matters for the former.
"If Trump is re-elected, he is likely to promote America-first. This will only encourage other countries and Asean nations to look towards China instead," he said.
Tanaka said that on the other hand, Japan is forging ahead under the astute leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is exercising greater friendliness and diplomacy as a counter-balance in the regional power-struggle.
Japan will continue to be a self-defence force militarily despite the challenges it is facing on its sovereignty, including the threats of inter-continental ballistic missiles from North Korea.