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Japan's Abe Seeks Friends in Asia—but Not China

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is the first Japanese premier to visit all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In late November, Emperor Akihito will make the first visit by a Japanese monarch to India. Not on either dignitary’s itinerary—China. And that’s no accident.

Abe, a foreign-policy hawk who’s clashed with the Chinese over the ownership of some Japanese-controlled islands, wants to shore up relations with the swath of nations forming a semicircle around China. Some have their own beefs, including India, which shares a disputed border with China. Abe will visit India next year, and in mid-December will host Asean leaders. It’s all part of his campaign to thwart China’s rulers, who, as he wrote in a column last December, see the South China Sea as “Lake Beijing.”

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This is powerful but dangerous talk. China is throwing its considerable weight around more in the region, and it may react aggressively if its neighbors push back too hard. As all sides buy more warships, missiles, and fighter jets, such confrontations could escalate. “Nobody has said this is surrounding China,” says Chiaki Akimoto, director of RUSI Japan, an arm of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a think tank. What Abe wants “is just a friendship network with nations around China.”

Whatever Japan’s policy is called, Abe is even pursuing it in areas within China’s sphere of influence. In November, he took his charm campaign to Cambodia and Laos. Despite a pacifist tradition dating to the end of World War II, Japan is increasing military cooperation with Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which have felt China’s wrath over territorial claims. Abe’s actions, says Tetsuo Kotani, research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, make clear that “China needs to think twice before taking assertive actions” in the South China Sea. The official China Daily dismissively says Abe has been “hyping South China Sea tension to gain popularity in the region.”

One reason Abe is getting a warm welcome is that China’s defense spending hit $172 billion last year, up 64 percent from 2008, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India has one Russian-made nuclear submarine and may lease a second. It just took delivery of its third aircraft carrier. It has test-fired a supersonic cruise missile that can reach Beijing.

In the same Dec. 27 column where he made his “Lake Beijing” comment, Abe wrote, “The ongoing disputes … mean that Japan’s top foreign-policy priority must be to expand the country’s strategic horizons. … I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.” Abe also wants Japan to join the Five Power Defence Arrangements of Britain, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore.

In June, Japan and the U.S. conducted Dawn Blitz, a military exercise in California that included a mock assault on a remote island. Japan’s self-defense force wouldn’t have joined such an exercise five years ago, says James Brown, a military fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. The stress on offensive action has spread to the navy. “We see the commissioning of warships that in external appearance look like assault ships,” says Dean Cheng, East Asian military analyst for the Heritage Foundation. “These are things that Japan shied away from.” Abe has long backed repealing the article of the country’s constitution that renounces war forever.

As the region’s militaries get bigger, so do the risks. “It strikes me how much the current situation in Asia looks like a replay of the 1930s in Europe,” says Daniel Goure, a vice president with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. Brown warns that “there are going to be a lot more submarines, a lot more amphibious vessels, a lot more aircraft, and we haven’t gotten agreement on how everybody is going to avoid accidents. It’s a huge problem.”

The bottom line: Japan is courting other Asian nations in an effort to shore up its political and military position in relation to China.

Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.
Philips is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @matthewaphilips.

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