Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Japan ups the stakes to draw ASEAN closer


MARCH 10, 2015

Together with 19 other journalists from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), I recently participated in a journalist visit programme hosted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

Over eight days, we took part in briefings and discussions on various strategic issues, including Japanese foreign policy, China-Japan relations and ASEAN-Japan relations. What struck me in these meetings is how keen Japan is to draw ASEAN closer to Tokyo in its tussle with China for influence in Asia. Notably, Japanese officials painted the contest almost as a zero-sum game.

Its game plan to engage ASEAN is a mix of economic diplomacy — which it is adept in — and signalling for the first time that it is prepared to patrol the South China Sea to counter Beijing’s assertiveness there.

In pressing the bloc to speak in one voice against China, Japanese officials warned against Beijing’s growing military strength and assertiveness in the region. The officials highlighted that its defence spending had been stable in the past decade, while China has been ramping up defence spending. In terms of troops, China has more than 10 times those of Japan. Conscious about how Japan was overtaken by China in terms of the size of its economy, Japan External Trade Organization officials noted how ASEAN was becoming increasingly dependent on China for machinery vis-a-vis Japan.


Japan is keen to leverage on the considerable goodwill gained from extending development aid to South-east Asia as a platform to draw ASEAN closer. In 2013, Tokyo pledged ¥2 trillion (S$22.8 billion) as official development assistance over the next five years.

Particularly for the newer ASEAN member states in Indochina, Japan has been active in extending development assistance. It is helping to enhance Myanmar’s and Vietnam’s postal system. Special legal provisions were made for a Japanese hospital to set up an overseas branch in Cambodia — the first time this was done, as the export of medical services is typically not permitted under Japanese law. Water purification experts have also helped built purification plants in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Accentuating the significance of Japan’s economic footprint in ASEAN, MOFA’s director-general for international cooperation and former Ambassador to ASEAN, Mr Kimihiro Ishikane, pointed out that “Japan’s development assistance to ASEAN for the past 60 years paved the way for ASEAN’s economic growth and enhanced the attractiveness of the region to foreign investors”.

The fact that Japan is the second-largest investor in South-east Asia should also count for something.

“Japan has many competitive advantages in ASEAN, especially in infrastructure and construction. Our biggest edge is, we have more than 7,000 companies operating in the region,” he added.

The other component of the country’s ASEAN engagement strategy is to take a more hands-on approach for maritime security.

Tokyo announced in January that it was considering the launch of air and sea patrols in the South China Sea. This is on top of the hardware support it has provided to some ASEAN countries. It gave three coast guard vessels to Indonesia in 2007. Ten vessels will be delivered to the Philippines this year. Vietnam in 2013 also registered official interest in acquiring such vessels under foreign aid.

If the government does launch patrols in the South China Sea, this will be unchartered territory for the Japanese self-defence forces who, mindful of World War II history, have been careful about projecting military might beyond its borders.

Japanese officials were clear in saying that their military presence in the South China Sea will not be a precursor to aggression.

“Certainly, Japan plans to be more active in the South China Sea. But this does not mean we will wage a war. The patrols are meant to address security threats such as terrorism, piracy and human trafficking — and this will enhance regional security,” said Mr Kohei Akiyama, deputy director of the national security policy division in MOFA.

Officials were clear that by getting involved in the South China Sea, Tokyo was not looking for conflict. Instead, it hopes to help ASEAN stand up to Beijing’s military might so that the South China Sea dispute can be settled through the rule of law and not power.

Japan believes this will create a healthy precedent for the East China Sea, where the two countries are locked in a bitter territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in Chinese terminology).

“If the South China Sea dispute is resolved peacefully, this will be helpful in easing the situation in the East China Sea,” said Mr Akiyama.

Tokyo’s efforts are unlikely to be well received in Beijing, which has been clear that it views the South China Sea as its backyard. Under President Xi Jinping’s strong leadership, China has shown little hesitation in projecting its military might. Japan’s strategy, may therefore turn out to be counterproductive and risks increasing tensions in the region.


Strengthening relations with Japan has obvious benefits for ASEAN. Economic and developmental benefits aside, Tokyo’s involvement in the South China Sea may give China something to think about in terms of how it stakes its claims on the disputed islands.

For many ASEAN countries, closer relations with Tokyo do not mean decreased interactions with Beijing. But from the perspective of regional architecture, ASEAN needs to be conscious about not getting caught between the major powers.

Over the years, the bloc has worked assiduously to ensure its relevance as a neutral broker through its network of ASEAN-centred multilateral dialogue, including the ASEAN Plus One dialogues, ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) and the East Asia Summit (which includes all Plus Three dialogue partners as well as the United States, India, Australia, New Zealand and Russia).

It is important that ASEAN should not be perceived as being partial to some partners.

As Mr Ishikane, the former Ambassador to ASEAN, said: “ASEAN should not be the chessboard for China, Japan and the US. We respect ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture and ASEAN should be at the centre of the rule-making process.”


Albert Wai is a senior correspondent at TODAY’s foreign desk.

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