By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian nations must ensure that territorial disputes do not erupt into conflict, leaders said on Friday, with Japan and the Philippines reaffirming their commitment to freedom of flight as concerns grow over China's new air defense zone.
Beijing's growing military strength has sparked concern in Asia and tension has spiked in the last month after China announced the air defense zone including islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan.
The air defense identification zone has triggered protests from the United States and its close allies, Japan and South Korea
China is also locked in territorial rows with other Asian nations, including the Philippines, over wide swathes of the South China Sea and has said it might set up a similar zone there.
"We reiterated our commitment to uphold the rule of law, promote the peaceful settlement of disputes, and to assure freedom of flight in international air space," Philippine President Benigno Aquino told reporters in Tokyo after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Aquino stopped short of mentioning China in the media appearance with Abe, who has made stronger ties with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) a priority, visiting all of them during his first year in office.
The charm offensive, which has been underlined by hefty Japanese aid over the years and rising private investment, culminates in a three-day Tokyo gathering that began on Friday and is billed officially as celebrating 40 years of diplomatic ties.
The final statement from the summit, due to be released on Saturday, is likely to state its support for freedom of the air and the seas - but stop short of mentioning China.
Chinese state media kept up the invective against Japan's complaints over the air space zone on Friday, with the official Xinhua news agency saying Abe was going to "stage again its China-is-to-blame game" at the ASEAN summit.
"It is believed that anyone with only half a brain knows that it is Japan who intentionally set the region on fire in the first place," Xinhua said in an English-language commentary.
Xinhua also announced the launch of a guided missile frigate, the Sanya, which it described as a new generation of battleship "especially adept for use in long-distance vigilance and aerial defense combat".
Abe has yet to meet the leaders of South Korea or China, and Tokyo's ties with its giant neighbor have been fraught since Japan bought three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea at the centre of a territorial dispute - a situation that other leaders at the meeting said should be rectified.
"In particular, it must be said that good relations between Japan and China are critical to the future of our region," said Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a speech.
"Indonesia is deeply concerned at the prospect of the disputes erupting into open conflicts, which will have adverse impacts on all countries in the region."
($1 = 103 yen)
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)