Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets another delegate before he delivers his keynote speech May 30 in Singapore. Abe is in Singapore to attend the 13th Asia Security Summit. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

— Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday that his country was ready to take a stronger role in collective defense in the Asia-Pacific area and beyond, and made clear that he views China as the most immediate threat to regional stability.

“Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain,” Abe told a gathering of East Asian defense ministers and officials, including U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, gathered here for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security.

Abe’s muscular remarks echoed a nationally televised address he made in Japan this month calling for a reinterpretation of Japan’s post-World War II constitution to expand the role of its military to aid allies and in U.N. peacekeeping operations. The use of Japan’s military for anything other than self-defense has been banned since the aftermath of the war, and Abe’s proposed change is controversial there.

He said that Japan’s “new banner” would be used to help “ensure the security of the seas and the skies, and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight,” a direct challenge to China’s increasingly confrontational actions in disputed waters of the South China Sea and East China Sea.

In recent weeks, China has flown military jets near the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands it claims in the East China Sea and has charged that Japanese fighters have entered a disputed air zone between the two countries.

China is also in disputes with its neighbors farther south, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, over nearly all of the South China Sea, with its busy international shipping lanes and rich oil and gas resources. Nearly all those governments have had direct clashes with Beijing; the Philippines has asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague to intervene, and anti-China riots broke out this month in Vietnam after China positioned an oil rig in waters claimed by both countries.

The territorial and maritime disputes have stymied U.S. efforts to protect its own economic and defense interests in the region and to act as an honest broker, even as the Obama administration has called on China to respect international law and other accords it has signed with other Asian countries.

“The least-desirable state of affairs is having to fear that coercion and threats will take the place of rules and laws, and that unexpected situations will arise at arbitrary times and places,” Abe said. “We do not welcome” conflict between “fighter aircraft and vessels at sea. What we should exchange are words.”

Although many in the region view Abe as uncomfortably hawkish, he was clearly playing to a sympathetic audience of Asia-Pacific states in an increasingly volatile region that fears what it sees as growing Chinese power and North Korean aggression as rapidly growing threats.

China has sent a second-tier military delegation to the conference, and Abe’s only applause line of the night came after his response to a Chinese officer who noted Abe’s controversial visit late last year to a shrine honoring Japanese war dead and asked if he had similar good wishes for the souls of the “millions and millions of people in China, Korea and many countries in this region that have been killed by the Japanese Army.”

Abe responded that he had expressed remorse for World War II many times and, in a direct dig at China’s communist government, said Japan had subsequently “created a peaceful, free and democratic nation based on that reflection. We protect human rights and respect the law.”

Asked whether Japan was willing to submit its maritime disputes with China to independent third-party arbitration called for in international law, he said “that is what China should think about. . . . China is the one challenging the status quo.”

“There is no territorial dispute,” Abe said. “Japan effectively controls the islands.”