Japan and Southeast Asian countries called for freedom of the air and sea on Saturday, as China's military assertiveness raises regional tensions and after U.S. and Chinese warships narrowly avoided collision in the disputed South China Sea.
China's recent announcement of an air defence zone covering disputed islands in the East China Sea and its territorial claims in the South China Sea have raised concerns that a minor incident in the disputed seas could quickly escalate.
The near-miss between a U.S. guided missile cruiser, USS Cowpens, and a Chinese warship operating near China's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, last week was the most significant U.S.-China maritime incident in the South China Sea since 2009, said security expert Carl Thayer at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
"It is a gravely disturbing development," said Ian Storey, a regional security analyst at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies.
"If China continues to challenge the presence of foreign naval ships in the South China Sea, it is only a question of time before a serious and potentially deadly incident occurs."
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed at a summit in Tokyo on the need for freedom of the high seas and skies and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
The statement did not criticise China's new air zone, which has triggered protests from Japan, United States and South Korea. Many ASEAN members have deep economic ties with China.
But Abe himself minced no words at a later news conference.
"The air defence identification zone China has established in the East China Sea is unjustly violating the freedom of aviation over the high seas, which is a general rule in international law. We are demanding China rescind all measures like this that unjustly violate the general rule," Abe said.
Sino-Japanese tensions have risen over the past year in a long-running dispute over Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Beijing. Both countries and have scrambled aircraft and conducted naval patrols in the area.
China and several ASEAN nations have competing territorial claims in the energy-rich South China Sea.
The Japan-ASEAN summit is the centrepiece of a three-day regional gathering officially billed as celebrating 40 years of diplomatic ties.
"I would like to build an Asia-Pacific future that respects each other's cultures and construct an economic system that is realised not by force, but by rule of law and our efforts," Abe said