Originally Published 2014-02-01 06:39:05 Published on Feb 01, 2014
Japan's engagement with SE Asia focuses through expanding economic ties, cooperation on maritime issues and building close diplomatic relations through Abe's travel diplomacy. This is Japan's 'pivot' to SE Asia and it is here to stay given its strategic rivalry with China.
Japan's 'pivot' to Asian littorals
"December 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan relations. The commemorative summit hosted by Tokyo saw significant developments in ASEAN-Japan partnership amidst ongoing China-Japan stand-off in the East China Sea (ECS). The joint statement of the summit suggested closer ASEAN-Japan ties in its struggle against China. The statement saw Tokyo and ASEAN nations pledging "to strengthen cooperation on air and maritime linkages ... agreed to enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of over flight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law..." The statement comes in light of the recently announced Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the disputed islands in ECS, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

This was seemingly a show of unity amongst the ASEAN members this time around unlike the 2012 diplomatic debacle when for the first time in its 45 year history, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue a communiqué due to differences between the then Chair, Cambodia and the Philippines and Vietnam - sparking off debates regarding ASEAN’s unity and China’s hold over ASEAN through Cambodia.

While China favours a divided ASEAN, Japan has been calling for a united ASEAN as regional tension rise over maritime disputes. During the 16th ASEAN-Japan summit in October 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed that "ASEAN... keep its unity" while resolving the maritime disputes in SCS. Tokyo has also been garnering support within ASEAN nations by re-engaging with the South East (SE) Asian countries dynamically. Abe visited all 10 ASEAN nations within the first 11 months of returning to office in December 2012. He is also the first Japanese PM to have visited all ASEAN nations while in office.

Tokyo also won hearts in the region through its aid to the Philippines in the aftermath of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan. While China was criticised for its "measly" aid toward its neighbour, Tokyo offered 53.1 million USD in assistance to Manila. Japan also sent three disaster relief medical teams and deployed 1000 Self-Defence Force (SDF) troops along with three naval vessels from the Maritime SDF and a SDF aircraft. Tokyo’s aid to Manila was one of the Japanese military’s largest overseas relief operations. The last prominent presence of the Japanese military in Manila was in World War II.

Beijing initially offered a 100,000 USD in assistance to Manila - a fraction of what other major players were offering to the typhoon ravaged country. Following an international outcry on the "insulting" offer, China increased its aid to 1.6 million USD. However, the damage was already done. While Tokyo emerged as a reliable partner in an emergency, SE Asian nations looked at China with apprehensions and a trust deficit - an opportunity for Tokyo to engage further with Beijing’s neighbours.

Japan is focused on engaging with the ASEAN nations with a renewed vigour. Abe pledged almost 20 billion USD in aid to SE Asian nations during the commemorative summit. Besides engaging with the ASEAN members collectively, Japan is also building bilateral ties with the countries and offering them development loans. During his visit to Myanmar in May 2013, Abe announced that Japan is ready to write off Myanmar’s nearly 2 billion USD debt while extending new development aid. Tokyo’s loans and economic goodwill has led to an increased Japanese presence in the country challenging China’s prominent position in Myanmar.

Tokyo is also very keen on engaging with SE Asian nations on the maritime front. Japan offered 10 multipurpose response vessels to the Philippines Coast Guard. The vessels will be used to patrol Manila’s shoreline to safeguard the country’s maritime territory. Tokyo will now be discussing the scope of giving patrol ships to Hanoi as well. The Prime Ministers of the two countries met on the sideline of the Commemorative Summit in December 2013 and both parties stressed on the need to maintaining "maritime order as well as international aviation order".

Hanoi and Manila are embroiled in a serious maritime dispute with Beijing and appreciate Tokyo’s presence in the area to counter China. The two ASEAN nations have collided most with Beijing due to their conflict in the SCS. While China emphasises on solving the issue at a bilateral level, Philippines and Vietnam don’t want to be seated alone against their giant neighbour. They have welcomed the US pivot and seek extra regional powers in the region to balance an increasingly assertive China.

It is without doubt that Beijing is closely monitoring Tokyo’s movements in SE Asia and launched a "charm offensive" to mend souring ties with its disgruntled neighbours. A report in China Daily in November 2013, titled "Abe busy in ASEAN blitz aimed at Beijing" examined Abe’s tour of the ASEAN nations. Responding to reports on Abe garnering support against China’s ADIZ over the ECS, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated in December 2013 that "We believe that when developing relations with each other, relevant countries should not target a third party or undermine the third party’s interests." An opinion in China’s Global Times on December 2013 noted that "Abe intends to defame China and pile up international censure on Beijing... but it’s doomed to fail".

Following Abe’s success story with ASEAN nations, Japan kicked off 2014 by engaging with India. By bringing India on board, Tokyo would be ahead in its diplomatic offensive against China. Given New Delhi and Beijing’s border dispute, Tokyo is at an advantageous position to cooperate with India. New Delhi, so far, has welcomed Tokyo’s engagements but it’s yet to see if India would finally gather its political will to increase its presence in SE Asia.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera visited India in the first week of 2014 with a view to strengthen defence ties between the two countries. During the visit, Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony and his Japanese counterpart held a meeting to discuss bilateral military cooperation and further strengthen their strategic partnership. Post the meeting, Onodera stated that the discussions led to "mutual agreements on several aspects of Defence cooperation". He also emphasised that: "It is of particular importance for the Japanese side to further strengthen the relationship with India as is also indicated by Prime Minister Abe’s visit to India scheduled at the end of this month."

In a very significant move, New Delhi has invited Tokyo to invest in the Northeast (NE) India - a region usually barred for the Chinese. NE India is a vital point of India’s Look East Policy - connecting India to SE Asia. According to reports, Japan will be investing in "developing the NE specially to build roads" - signalling toward expanding Indo-Japanese bilateral relationship.

In the maritime sphere, Japan and India held their first bilateral naval exercise ’JIMEX 12’ (Japan India Maritime Exercise) in June 2012, off the coast of Tokyo. The second JIMEX followed in 2013 in the Bay of Bengal. The bilateral maritime exercise is now carried on an annual basis between the naval forces of the two countries. India has also invited Japan to participate in the Indo-US annual Malabar exercise this year.

In the joint statement with Abe, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted that: "Together with the visit of Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan to India last month, his visit exemplifies the momentum in our Strategic and Global Partnership." He also stressed that "Japan is at the heart of India’s Look East Policy. It is also a key partner in our economic development and in our quest for a peaceful, stable and prosperous Asia and the world". Prime Minister Abe underlined the importance of the agreement between the two countries to "step up cooperation in the area of maritime security through active dialogue and visits between the two countries".

Abe’s visit to India as the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade was a significant event in India-Japan bilateral relationship. Japan’s show of solidarity while India showcased its military might during the parade hints at the beginning of a deeper Japan-India defence cooperation. Both nations are involved in territorial disputes with China and enhanced cooperation between two countries is bound to raise eyebrows in Beijing.

Japan’s engagement with SE Asia focuses through expanding economic ties, cooperation on maritime issues and building close diplomatic relations through Abe’s travel diplomacy. This is Japan’s "pivot" to SE Asia and it is here to stay given its strategic rivalry with China -- which is unlikely to disappear in the near future. ASEAN is a key player in Tokyo’s policy toward SE Asia. SE Asia is a very important route linking NE Asia to the India Ocean. It is a strategically important area given that the major Sea Lanes of Communications pass through this region. Therefore, it is not in Tokyo’s national interest to see SE Asia under the control of a hostile nation.

The strategically important Malacca Strait in the SCS links Asia with Middle East and Europe, carrying energy needs of the Asian powerhouses such as Japan, China and South Korea. According to the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), "Japan is dependent on imports for 96% of its primary energy supply" and the crude oil imports from the Middle East account for 90% of Tokyo’s oil imports.

It is imperative that ASEAN maintain its unity in the SCS issue in order to be able to counter China. Japan is extending a warm hand of friendship - a reliable friend they can fall back on in times of distress. Although it is unlikely for SE Asian countries to push away China and join hands with Japan, maintaining good relations with these countries is an important factor for Tokyo’s Beijing policy.

ASEAN countries and India have been responding positively to Japan’s extended friendship. The security situation in the region is changing and China is a common factor in the changing Asian power dynamics. Moreover, at a time when there is a growing uneasiness in Tokyo about Washington’s security guarantee, Japan is enthusiastically engaging with the Asian powers to gather support in the wake of Beijing’s bullying tactics in the maritime disputes of Asia Pacific.

(The writer is an Associate Editor of ORF South China Sea Monitor)

Courtesy: South China Sea Monitor,

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