Japan, Mekong States Seek Closer Ties Amid South China Sea Spats

Japan Mekong Summit in Tokyo
Five Mekong region leaders join hands prior to an economic forum in Tokyo on July 3, 2015. Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images

Japan and five countries bordering the South China Sea pledged to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight amid rising tensions over China’s build-up of reefs in disputed waters.

Japan and the so-called Mekong region nations called for swift agreement on a code of conduct, reiterating their concern over “recent developments” that they said may undermine the region’s stability in a joint statement issued Saturday. Separately, the government in Tokyo will provide 750 billion yen ($6.1 billion) over three years to develop infrastructure and conserve the environment.

“Both sides reaffirmed the importance of deepening their cooperation on maritime security and maritime safety in the region,” the statement showed. The Mekong countries comprise Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

Japan has been signaling its support for countries around the South China Sea, a region that’s estimated to host more than $5 trillion of shipping each year and provides about 10 percent of the world’s fishing catch. Japan in June conducted military drills with the Philippines near the Spratly Islands, where China has created more than 2,000 acres of land in waters also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The U.S. has sought to ease tensions, with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urging “renewed diplomacy.” There’s no military solution to the South China Sea disputes, he told defense ministers and military chiefs at a Singapore conference on May 30.

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