TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and Malaysia agreed to bolster security ties and start talks on transfers of defense equipment and technology, their leaders said on Monday, as both separately wrangle with China over territorial spats.
"I've agreed with Prime Minister Najib (Razak) to raise our bilateral ties to strategic partnership," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a joint news conference.
"As a concrete step, we've agreed to cooperate in defense equipment. Also, by reinforcing support to (Malaysia's) maritime law enforcement body, we will cooperate for maritime safety."
Sino-Japanese ties have been plagued by a dispute over a group of tiny East China Sea islets. China also claims most of the South China Sea, with overlapping claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Details of cooperation on defense gear and technology have yet to be decided, but it is likely to include the areas of disaster relief and maritime security, Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters.
Malaysia is the first Southeast Asian country with which Japan has launched negotiations on such cooperation, Kato said.
At the meeting with Najib, Abe expressed strong concern over China's land reclamation in the South China Sea, Kato added.
On the issue of "boat people" adrift off Malaysia and some other Southeast Asian countries, Najib called for Japan's help.
"We believe that while we try to look for an ASEAN solution, it is also an international problem, which requires an international solution," Najib told the news conference.
"Therefore anything Japan can do to help us alleviate this problem would certainly be very much welcome."
Najib last week ordered the navy to rescue thousands of migrants adrift at sea in rickety boats. Many of the boat people are Rohingya Muslims, who have long complained of discrimination in Myanmar, and Bangladeshis fleeing persecution and poverty.
Japan told the Malaysian side it was willing to offer whatever assistance it could, Kato said.
Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Mark Trevelyan