Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making inroads in his push to build ties with Southeast Asian nations as he seeks a buffer against Chinese assertiveness while complementing Japan’s alliance with the U.S.
In recent months Cambodia sealed a defense deal with Japan and secured $135 million in infrastructure loans, Singapore expressed understanding for Abe’s efforts to boost his military, and Vietnam, a traditionally China ally, has warmed to Japan. The moves reflect a flurry of diplomatic activity by Abe, who visited 30 countries in his first year in office, including all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members.
With the U.S. planning to shrink its armed forces to pre-2001 levels and a pledged Asia pivot untested, Abe is looking to a new suite of regional partners to help counter China’s growing economic and military reach. His push comes at a time when historic animosities have resurfaced over a territorial dispute and Asia’s two biggest economies are vying for natural resources, markets and influence.
“There are concerns about whether the U.S. is going to be there if there’s a confrontation with China,” said Alan Dupont, professor of international security at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “Even if the Obama administration is supportive politically, will a future United States government support Japan militarily and strategically? I think there are real doubts about that emerging in Japan.”
Relations between China and Japan have been hindered by territorial disputes over islands in the East China Sea and Abe’s efforts to strengthen his own defense forces, a move China says threatens regional stability. Even as Abe drew criticism for visiting a Tokyo war shrine and Japan’s ties with South Korea remain frosty, he has benefited from unease in the region over China’s actions, such as its creation of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.
The tensions comes against a backdrop of the U.S. shrinking its global military. The Pentagon’s budget released Feb. 24 calls for reducing the army by almost 14 percent to about 450,000 personnel by 2019, leaving fewer active duty forces than at the time of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001.
“The world is getting smaller and relations between countries are becoming more complicated,” Yousuke Isozaki, special adviser to Abe on security policy, said in a Jan. 17 interview. “In the circumstances, can Japan defend itself alone, or just with the U.S.?”
China in January announced fishing rules requiring foreign vessels to seek permission to enter waters near its southern shores. That move came five weeks after it set up the air zone covering islands disputed with Japan. Days after declaring the air zone, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier set off for the South China Sea, which is beset by competing claims from countries such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The Philippines summoned China’s envoy in Manila this week to protest the use of water cannons in January to drive Filipino fishing boats from a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
“Every time the Chinese do something that reminds people of their aggressive intent and their desire to shift the status quo in their favor, whether it’s the ADIZ or it’s the fishing zone, it makes the idea of a larger Japanese security role in the region much more palatable,” said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University in California.
Abe has pledged $20 billion in aid and investment for Asean nations over the next five years and is offering Japan’s military expertise as well. Asean defense officials agreed to cooperate to use Japanese defense equipment to help respond to natural disasters and anti-terrorism operations at a meeting this month in Okinawa.
Abe has made gains outside of Southeast Asia. In Australia, there has been a noticeable swing to Japan since Prime Minister Tony Abbott took office in September. Speaking at the East Asia Summit in Brunei in October, Abbott said Japan was Australia’s “closest friend in Asia.”
India’s opposition leader Narendra Modi, a front-runner in elections due by May, attacked China on Feb. 22 for its “expansionary mindset.” India and China, nuclear-armed neighbors, briefly fought over territory in 1962.
Some countries traditionally close to China have been acting cooler. Vietnam last month for the first time marked the anniversary of its 1974 battle with China over the Paracel islands, in which 74 South Vietnamese were killed, the Associated Press reported. Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang will visit Japan in March.
Cambodia in December upgraded its relations with Japan to a “strategic partnership” and sealed a security agreement calling for defense minister meetings and mutual port visits. Three Japanese ships docked in Cambodia last week.
“Against a backdrop of strategic uncertainty caused by China’s rising power and questions about America’s long-term staying power, Southeast Asian countries have been generally receptive to Japan’s advances,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Tensions with China have spurred Abe to increase Japan’s defense budget and push for a reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution to allow Japan to defend its allies.
Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said last month Japan was “understandably concerned” about its security and sovereignty, while Philippine President Benigno Aquino said in an interview Feb. 19 that Japan’s constitutional restraint on its military was “too restrictive” and “not practical.”
Still, relations with South Korea are at a low point, with President Park Geun Hye refusing to meet Abe. She criticized his December visit to the shrine that’s seen by many in South Korea and China as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
Ultimately China’s economic clout will limit a regional drift toward Japan, with nations anxious to avoid conflict with the world’s second-largest economy.
“Almost every country in East Asia is in a difficult position” with respect to China, said Scott Harold, an associate political scientist at the Rand Corporation in Arlington, Virginia. “Their biggest trading partner is their biggest potential security threat.”