Tokyo should stop meddling and work with Beijing in Southeast Asia

By Chang Sichun Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/21 18:48:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with leaders of the Philippines, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. He offered to provide two patrol vessels that will be financed through 16.4 billion yen ($160.3 million) in loans and lend up to five TC-90 training aircraft to the Philippines. He also announced Japan will provide Vietnam with new patrol ships and Myanmar with 125 billion yen in loans.

With a series of steps to boost Japan's ties with Southeast Asian countries starting in late 2012, Abe's Southeast Asia diplomacy has explicitly taken shape. Japan intends to expand its political and economic clout in Southeast Asian countries and deepen relations with them, and on this basis pull these countries in league with Japan to politically and economically check China's growing influence in the region.

In recent years, Japan has taken part in a high number of security and military exchanges with Southeast Asian countries, clearly directed at China. In particular, Tokyo has made use of tensions in the South China Sea to ease restrictions on its military and security policy, divert China's attention from the East China Sea and counterbalance China's rising influence in Southeast Asia.

To this end, Japan has actively preached freedom of navigation and international law together with the US to render the South China Sea disputes international in scope. Abe hyped up the China threat during bilateral and multilateral diplomatic occasions to push countries outside the region to chime in on the South China Sea issue. Since the arbitration ruling was released, Tokyo has used every means to importune the international community to pressure China into accepting the result.

Japan has highly valued building of mechanisms to deepen military cooperation and exchanges with Southeast Asian countries. Besides attending a slew of meetings like the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, ASEAN Regional Forum Defense Officials' Dialogue and meeting with ASEAN defense ministers, Japan also held joint exercises and military symposiums with ASEAN nations. Bilaterally, Japan has tried hard to enhance its military cooperation with South China Sea claimants. Indonesia became the first Southeast Asian country that held two-plus-two ministerial consultations with Japan in December, and the Philippines signed a defense equipment transfer agreement with Japan in February, the first one in the region.

Moreover, Japan has provided used patrol vessels to Vietnam and the Philippines and funded the training of their maritime enforcement personnel to help build up the military capacity in these countries. This year, vessels of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense forces have visited Subic Bay in the Philippines and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam to intensify military cooperation and strategically deter China.

Economically, Japan has given high priority to the Southeast Asian market and has been determined to compete with China for clout. Japan proposed a Partnership for Quality Infrastructure to vie with China's One Belt and One Road initiative. The Japanese government amended the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) Act to allow the JBIC to invest in Asian programs that involve high risks, and its top leader acted as a salesperson to help enterprises engage in competition. Japan has also deemed countries along the Mekong River a new priority for economic cooperation. Last year, it signed the New Tokyo Strategy 2015 with five countries in the Mekong region and promised massive assistance for them to cope with China's Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism.

Yet Southeast Asian countries have been clearly aware of Japan's intentions and are unlikely to work alongside Japan. Most ASEAN countries refused to take a side over the arbitration farce or to include the South China Sea issue in the ASEAN summit statement. Recently Chinese and ASEAN leaders agreed to advance consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, control differences and resolve contradictions before the final settlement of disputes. In the meantime, regional cooperation between China and ASEAN under the Belt and Road initiative is expected to forge ahead both in land and at sea.

In this context, it would be a wise choice for Japan to give up its attempts to make trouble around China and instead improve cooperation and trust with China within multilateral frameworks such as the Belt and Road initiative to jointly promote Asia's regional integration. 

The author is an associate research fellow with the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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