Two of the poorest countries in Asia suddenly were front and center over the weekend in the growing battle for influence between Japan and China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Laos and Cambodia, the first trip by a Japanese leader to the two Southeast Asian countries since 2000. Abe left with some modest achievements, such as agreements to help fund road, bridge, and rail infrastructure.
The point of the trip, though, was more about sending a message to Beijing. Abe took office less than a year ago and has already visited all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. That’s a first for a Japanese leader. With Japan and China continuing to squabble over islands in the East China Sea, Abe is looking to win support among countries in Southeast Asia, even such places as Cambodia and Laos that traditionally have been close to China. Meanwhile, Abe has yet to sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang.
Since many ASEAN nations have territorial disputes of their own with China, Abe no doubt sees an opportunity to build Japanese influence with countries that can agree on the threat posed by their common rival. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, for instance, are all facing challenges from China, which claims nearby islands.
As he tries to solidify ties with the Southeast Asians, Abe has gotten a boost from China’s clumsy response to the tragedy in the Philippines. Angry at President Benigno Aquino over the Philippines’s unwillingness to recognize China’s claims for some South China Sea rocks, the Chinese government initially offered a measly $100,000 to assist in the recovery from Typhoon Haiyan. While the Chinese government later boosted the amount to $1.6 million, the assistance is still peanuts compared with the $10 million from Japan, not to mention the even more generous offers from Japanese allies: The U.S has pledged $20 million and Australia $28 million.
Japan could hardly have asked for a better reminder that China may not be the friendliest of neighbors. Countries like the Philippines are especially open to Abe’s message, since their economies and militaries are tiny compared with China’s. Japan is providing ships for the Philippine coast guard and considering selling vessels to Vietnam, too. Japan is also conducting counterterrorism exercises with Indonesia.
The Japanese aid should help combat another common enemy—pirates in the Indian Ocean—and perhaps help ASEAN’s member states withstand heat from their giant neighbor. “Some Asean member countries are very much vulnerable to China’s economic and political influence,” says Tetsuo Kotani, research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. By boosting military cooperation, “we are giving assurance we will stand by those ASEAN member countries,” he says. “As China’s neighboring countries develop their own capability, China needs to think twice before taking assertive actions.”
China’s official media is not amused. “Abe is trying to hijack some countries that are not contending parties to the South China Sea issue, forcing them to take sides,” Lu Yaodong, director of the department of diplomacy at the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of Japanese Studies, told the official China Daily newspaper, in a story headlined, “Abe busy in ASEAN blitz aimed at Beijing.” According to the China Daily, experts in China believe the Japanese have been “hyping South China Sea tension to gain popularity in the region.”