Japan pivots south, with eye on China

Jan 25, 2013- MANILA - After decades of self-imposed pacifism, Japan is beginning to carve out a new role in regional maritime affairs. Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has launched a charm offensive across the Pacific, with Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam among the countries Tokyo is bidding to align against China's rising assertiveness.
By Richard Javad Heydarian

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung review the guard of honor during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Abe is in Vietnam for a two-day visit, the first leg of his three-nation Asian tour.

Abe has vowed to revisit Japan's pacifist constitution, re-calibrate its security alliance with the United States, and steer the establishment of a so-called "democratic security diamond", a proposed strategic alliance of like-minded Indo-Pacific countries that share similar anxieties about China's growing naval might.

If implemented, Abe's policies will inject Japan into the heart of the intensifying Pacific struggle between Beijing and Washington for maritime regional maritime dominance and stir new concerns, especially in China, over a possible reemergence of Japan's militaristic past.

Japan has already broken with tradition by increasing its defense budget for the first time in 11 years, [1] providing military aid to Cambodia and East Timor, and considering the sale of military equipment such as seaplanes and advanced Soryu submarines to strategic partners such as Vietnam and Australia.

New geopolitics

While Washington is traditionally the first foreign destination for newly elected Japanese leaders, the new Abe administration chose to prioritize southern partners in the Pacific on their international itineraries.

In January, Abe visited Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, while dispatching Deputy Minister Taro Aso to Myanmar and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Australia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Singapore.

While Japan-China trade has fallen from 18.4% of Tokyo's total exports in 2000 to 11.2% in 2011, exports to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam has risen from 9.7% to 10.9% over the same period, according to a report from the Japan Research Institute. [2]

"Currently, the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region is going through a dynamic change," Abe said in explaining his reasons for choosing Southeast Asia as his first foreign destination. "During this change, having closer relations with ASEAN countries contributes to the region's peace and stability and is in Japan's national interest."

Japan is at the forefront of large-scale industrial investments in liberalizing Myanmar, which is gradually emerging out of China's decades-long patronage through more engagement with the West. Japan's Sumitomo Corporation, Mitsuibishi Corporation, and Marubeni Corporation are set to take a 49% stake in a US$12.6 billion Special Economic Zone (SEZ) situated at Yangon's Thilawa Port, and Japanese companies are heavily involved in other large-scale industrial developments in the country.

Thailand, Japan's regional manufacturing hub with over 8,000 companies situated in the country, is also slated to benefit from a new wave of investments as more small and medium-sized manufacturers look to relocate outside of Japan. The moves come at a time nationalistic protests and spiraling wages threaten and undermine Japan's interests in China.

However, deeper geostrategic considerations are driving Japan's southern pivot, which aims at revitalizing defense relations with old partners to rein in China's assertiveness.

Vietnam, locked in a bitter territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, is keen to enhance its security ties with major Pacific powers, namely the US, Japan, and Australia. Former Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh has just taken over as secretary general of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asean Nations, portending a more proactive regional approach to the South China Sea disputes.

Given China's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) vulnerabilities, Vietnam's navy is reportedly considering the purchase of Japan's Soryu stealth diesel-powered submarines, which if procured would dramatically augment Hanoi's ASW capabilities.

Indonesia, ASEAN's informal leader and economic behemoth, has stepped up its bilateral security relations with all major Pacific powers while exploring varying diplomatic means to resolve the disputes in the South China Sea. In recent years, Jakarta has sponsored the establishment of guidelines for a regional code of conduct in the contested areas.

Last year, when ASEAN fell into disarray with China ally Cambodia vigorously blocking efforts at establishing a regional dispute-settlement mechanism in the South China Sea, Indonesia pushed a "Six Point Principles" initiative aimed at diplomatically resolving regional territorial conflicts. In this connection, Abe has found a natural and influential ally in Indonesia, which has also emerged as a major investment destination for Japanese manufacturers.

For Japan, however, the Philippines is perhaps its most like-minded Southeast Asian partner. Similar to Japan, the Philippines is a liberal democratic country and a US treaty ally. Manila has also been at the forefront of regional efforts to deepen US military commitment to the freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific and establish a robust regional approach under the auspices of ASEAN to multilaterally manage the ongoing disputes.

During Kishida's recent trip to the Philippines, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said, "We also need to be able to address the possibility that the freedom of navigation would be adversely affected," referring to China's aggressive maneuvering in the disputed territories. His Japanese counterpart agreed, saying, "As the strategic environment is changing, it is necessary for us as foreign ministers to share recognition of the situation."

Along with China, the Philippines bore the brunt of Japanese militarism during World War II, with countless Filipinos falling victim to Japanese cruelty and much of Manila devastated by war. In a telling sign of the Philippines' growing current anxieties with China, Del Rosario said last year he supported a re-armed Japan shorn of its pacifist constitution.

"We are looking for balancing factors in the region, and Japan could be a significant balancing factor," he said last year in an interview with the Financial Times. [3]

In addition to 12 patrol boats promised by the previous Japanese government, [4] Tokyo is finalizing its biggest ever security-related aid package, with 10 cutters worth around $12 million set to be donated to the Philippine Coast Guard. [5]

China counterweight

On the eve of his reemergence as Japan's elected leader, Abe pulled no punches in warning against repeated Chinese incursions in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

"[Senkakus are Japan's] inherent territory... we don't intend to worsen relations between Japan and China," Abe said in taking a tough line on the ongoing territorial dispute. "China lacks this recognition a little bit. I want them to think anew about mutually beneficial strategic relations." [6]

During his prior premiership in 2006-07, Abe chose China as his first regional destination, underscoring the significance then of booming bilateral economic ties. This time, though, he struck a less sanguine tone on visiting Beijing by stating, "The problem is that harm is being caused to Japanese companies and Japanese nationals in China who are contributing to the Chinese economy and society." [7]

China is likely at the top of Abe's foreign agenda, though not only for economic reasons. Last year, in a controversial essay published before the parliamentary elections, Abe expressed his commitment to forge ahead with a more muscular and assertive foreign policy aimed at containing China and consolidating a regional "democratic security diamond".

"I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the Western Pacific," he wrote. "I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan's capacities in this security diamond." [8]

During the first round of foreign trips made by Japan's top leaders, Australia was the sole non-ASEAN destination. Canberra's significance lies in its status as the other spoke - together with Japan - in the US-based "hub and spokes" alliance network in the Pacific.

The three Pacific powers - Japan, the US, and Australia - have been in a constant state of interaction and cooperation under the Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD), while the 2007 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation has served as a linchpin in the evolving Japanese-Australian strategic partnership. [9]

Aside from a regular ministerial level (2+2) dialogue, the two countries have signed an intelligence-sharing agreement and Acquisitions and Cross-Serving Agreement in recent years. [10] In terms of enhancing inter-operability, Japan and Australia have conducted joint naval exercises since 2009.

Recognizing India's rising profile in the Pacific, especially given its direct energy investments in Vietnam-controlled disputed waters in the South China Sea, Tokyo has also sought deeper strategic cooperation with New Delhi.

Last year, Japanese and Indian Coast Guards conducted a joint exercise known as "Sahyog Kaijin XI" from India's port of Chennai. The Japanese Coast Guard ship Settsu (PLH-07), two interceptor boats, and eight other coastguard ships participated in the exercise. [11]

Japan's navy is viewed as the main regional counterweight to China, which has rapidly developed its anti-access and blue-water naval capabilities in recent years. Japan has the world's sixth-largest military budget [12], while its navy boasts 48 major surface combatants; two large helicopter-carrying destroyers; an assortment of corvettes, frigates and stealthy diesel-powered submarines (considered best of their kind); and a state-of-the-art Aegis combat system. [13]

The most important country in Abe's "security diamond" is the US. In recent months, the two allies have conducted a series of high-profile joint naval exercises. In November, 47,000 personnel took part in the biennial Keen Sword exercise off Okinawa, originally planned to act out the re-capture of inhabited islands off the southern coast of Japan. [14] This month, Japanese and US fighter jets conducted a five-day air exercise involving six US FA-18 fighters and four Japanese F-4 jets. The exercise took place just days after Japanese jets fended off Chinese aircraft surveying the disputed islands. [15]

In response to the People's Liberation Army's East China Fleet naval exercise last year, which among other things simulated an assault on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Japan reportedly also conducted a military drill practicing the recapture of similar uninhabited islands. [16]

The Abe administration is not only beginning to assume a larger share of Japan's defense responsibilities, given the US's fiscal woes and strategic prevarications, but is also emerging as a pillar for a broader regional effort to rein in China's territorial assertiveness by reaching out to Pacific partners. It's a strategic pivot that will have profound implications for regional security in the years ahead.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst focusing on Iran and international security. He is the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2013. He can be reached at jrheydarian@gmail.com.

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