Leaders of Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will formally elevate their ties to a "comprehensive strategic partnership" in December during a special summit commemorating their 50 years of friendship and cooperation, the chief of the regional bloc said Monday.

The plan comes as the United States and China increasingly vie for influence in Southeast Asia. It follows both countries upgrading their ties with ASEAN to a comprehensive strategic partnership -- China in 2021 and the United States in 2022.

"There has been a lot of discussion already (about the planned upgrade), and we expect it (during the special summit) in Tokyo in December," ASEAN Secretary General Kao Kim Hourn told Kyodo News in an interview.

Kao Kim Hourn, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, speaks in an interview with Kyodo News on March 6, 2023, in Jakarta. (Kyodo)

Japan, for its part, has been trying to boost its relationship with the 10-member ASEAN at a time when some of the bloc's members are increasingly vigilant against Beijing's assertiveness in the East and South China seas. Four ASEAN countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- have overlapping territorial claims with China and Taiwan.

"We've seen that Japan is working" on the planned elevation, Kao said, adding that ASEAN and Japan hope "to have a very good list of deliverables."

He stressed that ASEAN agreed to upgrade ties with Japan due to the country's track record of support, engagement and cooperation in areas such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and maritime security.

Under the upgraded partnership, ASEAN is looking for strong cooperation in areas such as technological innovation, people-to-people contact and cultural collaboration, according to Kao.

He specifically hopes Japan will initiate more scholarships for citizens of ASEAN member countries.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

On the political crisis in Myanmar, which has been under military rule since February 2021, Kao confirmed that the Office of Special Envoy set up by Indonesia as ASEAN chair this year has been "working very hard" to engage all stakeholders in Myanmar.

"Now, of course, how this would be implemented remains up to the special envoy and the chair. But at the end of the day, what we want to see is that Myanmar returns to peace and becomes an active member of ASEAN," the secretary general said.

However, Kao refused to go into details, saying that "Indonesia works in quieter diplomacy."

ASEAN only allows a nonpolitical representative from Myanmar's junta in ASEAN ministerial meetings or summits. But Myanmar has strongly opposed this and has never sent a representative.

ASEAN has been urging Myanmar to follow up on the regional group's so-called five-point consensus agreed upon by leaders, including Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, two years ago. Among other things, it calls for an end to violence against the junta's political opponents and civilian protesters "through concrete, practical and time-bound actions."

Kao also touched on a working-level group meeting between ASEAN and China this week to discuss a regional code of conduct to defuse tensions in the South China Sea.

He welcomed the commitment between the two sides "to move forward" on drafting a binding code of conduct. Negotiations toward such ends have been ongoing since 2018, but there has yet to be much progress.