Japan is carving out a new role in regional maritime affairsFresh into office, the newly elected Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has launched a charm offensive across the Pacific in a bid to align Tokyo’s strategic partners against China’s rising assertiveness.
Abe has vowed to revisit Japan’s pacifist constitution, re-calibrate its security alliance with the United States and steer the establishment of a so-called ‘democratic security diamond’, a proposed strategic alliance of like-minded Indo-Pacific countries that share similar anxieties about China’s growing naval might.
If implemented, Abe’s policies will inject Japan into the heart of the intensifying struggle between Beijing and Washington for Pacific maritime dominance and stir new concerns, especially in China, over a possible re-emergence of Japan’s militaristic past.
Japan has already broken with tradition by increasing its defence budget for the first time in 11 years, providing military aid to Cambodia and East Timor, and considering defence technology cooperation with strategic partners such as Australia.
While Washington is traditionally the first foreign destination for newly elected Japanese leaders, the new Abe administration chose to prioritise visits to its southern Pacific partners. In January, Abe visited Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, while dispatching Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso to Myanmar and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Australia, Brunei, the Philippines and Singapore.
In economic terms, while Japan–China trade has fallen from 18.4 per cent of Tokyo’s total exports in 2000 to 11.2 per cent in 2011, exports to ASEAN+6 economies have risen from 9.7 per cent to 10.9 per cent over the same period. As nationalistic protests and spiraling wages are threatening Japan’s interests in China, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia are attracting a growing share of Japan’s outbound investment.
With former Vietnamese deputy foreign minister, Le Luong Minh, now secretary general of ASEAN, Japan is anticipating a more proactive regional approach to the South China Sea disputes. In recent years, Indonesia, widely seen as ASEAN’s informal leader, has not only sponsored the establishment of guidelines for a legally binding regional code of conduct on contested areas, but was also at the forefront of efforts to rescue ASEAN from internal conflagration through its ‘Six-Point Principles’ initiative, which aimed to diplomatically resolve regional territorial conflicts.
The Philippines is perhaps Japan’s most like-minded Southeast Asian partner. Similar to Japan, the Philippines is a liberal democratic country and a US treaty ally, which has aggressively courted greater US military commitment to the region. Last year, Manila went as far as indicating its support for a rearmed Japan shorn of its pacifist constitution, even despite bitter memories of the Japanese occupation in World War II. In addition to 12 patrol boats the Philippines hopes to receive from Japan, Tokyo is currently finalising its biggest ever security-related aid package, with 10 cutters worth around US$12 million set to be donated to the Philippine Coast Guard.
Abe has expressed his commitment to forge ahead with a more assertive foreign policy aimed at containing China and consolidating a regional ‘democratic security diamond’.
During the first round of foreign trips by Japan’s top leaders, Australia was the sole non-ASEAN destination. Canberra’s significance lies in its status as the other spoke — together with Japan — in the US-led hub and spokes alliance network in the Pacific. The 2007 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation has served as a linchpin in the evolving Japan–Australia strategic partnership, with both sides enhancing interoperability by conducting joint naval exercises since 2009. The two countries have also signed an intelligence-sharing agreement and an acquisitions and cross-servicing agreement in recent years.
Tokyo has also sought deeper strategic cooperation with New Delhi. Japan recognises India’s rising profile in the Pacific, especially given its direct energy investments in Vietnam-controlled disputed waters in the South China Sea. Last year, Japanese and Indian coast guards conducted their first joint maritime exercise known as ‘Sahyog Kaijin XI’ off India’s port of Chennai.
The most important country in Abe’s ‘security diamond’ is the United States. In recent months, the two allies have conducted a series of high-profile joint naval exercises. In November 2012, 47,000 personnel took part in the biennial Keen Sword exercise off Okinawa, originally planned to act out the re-capture of inhabited islands off the southern coast of Japan. In January this year, Japanese and US fighter jets conducted a five-day air exercise, just days after Japanese jets shadowed Chinese aircraft surveying the disputed islands.
In response to China’s naval exercise last year, which among other things simulated an assault on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Japan reportedly also conducted a military drill practicing the recapture of similar uninhabited islands.
The Abe administration is not only beginning to assume a larger share of Japan’s defence responsibilities, given the United States’ fiscal woes and strategic prevarications, it is also emerging as a pillar for a broader regional effort to rein in China’s territorial assertiveness by reaching out to Pacific partners. It’s a strategic pivot that will have profound implications for regional security in the years ahead.
Richard Javad Heydarian is Manila-based foreign affairs analyst.
A version of this article was published on the Asia Times Online.