Another SEA tour by Abe

27.01.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

564534234In the period of January 12-17, 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made another tour across several countries in South-East Asia (SEA). And it’s hard to say which number tour this is, considering his trips to the region on the occasion of a variety of forums regularly conducted on the basis of ASEAN, an Association uniting 10 SEA countries.

The current Japanese Prime Minister’s frequent visits to the region fit into Tokyo’ general trend since the 1950’s-60’s to pay special attention to SEA.

By this time, Japan, having rapidly gained economic power, changed the means of implementation of virtually all of that same policy of expanding their influence in SEA, which had ended so disastrously for it during the Second World War.

Change in the post-war foreign policy image, as well as the tool kit to achieve former objectives, have led to the most positive effects, and today Japan is one of three key players in SEA. Together with the US and China, Japan forms the fundamental triangle which decisively influences all the processes in South-East Asia (as well as the Asia-Pacific region (APR) as a whole).

In recent years, however, there has been a tendency to expand the tool kit used to obtain advantageous positions in South-East Asia by adding the military component to the economic background. This process is proceeding gradually, and so far the weight of the military component is far behind the “old” one. But its presence was quite noticeable in the course of discussion of Abe’s tour.

The first country of visit were the Philippines. For several reasons discussed more than once in the NEO, the struggle between the leading players for influence in this country in recent years has greatly increased, and Tokyo’s chances look quite good. Thus, while on an official visit to Japan in October, 2016, the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte (a fan of bold expressions, which has become a trend of modern public policy) called Abe a “special friend, closer than a brother“.

And Abe did not disappoint the expectations of his “more than a brother.” The main outcome of the meeting in Manila was Japanese Prime Minister’s promise to allocate (through public and private channels) USD 8.7 billion over a five-year period for the implementation of infrastructure projects in the Philippines. In addition, at a joint press conference, leaders of both states have reported of their agreement to raise the level of cooperation in the field of “maritime security.”

In this case, different rhetorical twists were used. If Abe pointed to the construction of China’s man-made structures in the South China Sea as the main challenge to said “security”, R. Duterte talked about joint efforts of both states to ensure the rule of law in the waters of their region. Restraint expressions by the latter is understandable, because three months earlier he had been in Beijing to sign a number of agreements for a total of USD 13.5 billion.

Then Abe proceeded to Australia, which in purely geographical terms is a separate continent, but politically is very closely involved in all the processes occurring in South-East Asia. Having been carrying out the role of “deputy sheriff” here for quite a long time, Australia has now transferred these functions (probably with considerable relief for itself) to Japan, which is so much more powerful in all respects.

In the talks that took place in Sydney, two points attracted attention. The first point dealt with the expanded scope of a bilateral agreement concluded in January, 2013 on cooperation in the development of military technology and logistics of the armed forces.

The second point had the nature of an address to the new American President (who forced both Tokyo and Canberra to worry during the election campaign). Abe and his Australian partner Malcolm Turnbull insisted on the necessity to further strengthen the already actually established tripartite military-political alliance and to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the new US administration, which had previously been negatively assessed by Donald Trump.

The third state of visit was Indonesia. The outcome of Abe’s talks with President Joko Widodo was a joint statement on “Strengthening the strategic partnership” with a few key points. Firstly, D. Widodo supported Abe’s concept of “freedom and openness in the Indo-Pacific Region.”

This concept reflected Japan’s long-time desire to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean. And it was reflected in the paragraph in which Abe responded positively to J. Widodo’s invitation to take part in the regular meeting of the Regional Forum “The Coastal Countries of the Indian Ocean”, which will be held in Jakarta in March, 2017.

In addition, the parties spoke a notable phrase on cooperation on the project dedicated to modernisation of the “Northern (railway) line of Java.” It is most likely talking about what we have discussed previously, i.e. Japan’s “return” to a large-scale project to build a high-speed railway with a total length of 750 km across the island of Java. Japan had lost the tender for its implementation to China (as it seemed, permanently) in the autumn of 2015.

In this document, defense and “maritime security” also took a prominent place. In particular, noting “the vital importance for the global economy” posed by the reliable operation of sea routes through the South China Sea, the parties stressed the necessity to adhere to all of the same provisions of “International Law” and “peaceful ways of solving the problems” that have accumulated in relations between both states in the region.

The same mantras were heard in Hanoi, Vietnam – Abe’s last port of call during his tour across the SEA countries. It should be noted that all participants of the talks with the Japanese Prime Minister sought to avoid (at least in public) specificity of these mantras. But Abe, on the other hand, never missed an opportunity to specify the source of all problems in the region, which is China, in his opinion.

However, there is reason to believe that behind closed doors, the aforementioned interlocutors state something similar. Only real concerns about China’s policy in South-East Asia can explain an agreement reached in Hanoi on Japan’s supply of six coast guard ships for a total amount of USD 340 million to Vietnam. Commenting on this agreement, Abe, in particular, said: “We will provide comprehensive support to Vietnam in its efforts to comply with the maritime law

Nevertheless, all SEA countries (again, at least in public) tend to avoid a tough anti-Chinese positioning in the regional game between the major powers, into which they are inevitably being dragged. And here, Vietnam is a representative example.

Just when the Japanese Prime Minister was visiting Hanoi, the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong was on his four-day visit to China. Comments by the Chinese press and the official communiqué on the visit of the high profile guest are imbued with optimism on issues of bilateral relations as a whole, and the situation in the South China Sea in particular.

Finally, it can be expected that in the near future, the initially depicted fundamental political-geometric shape for the situation in South-East Asia will be changed from a triangular into a quadrangle. This will happen in case of developing India’s “Looking East” policy, which focuses on Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam. In this case, Delhi (along with Tokyo) is increasingly using the sphere of defense cooperation.

During the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Vietnam in September 2016, there was a talk of Delhi’s readiness to provide a loan of USD 500 million to Hanoi for developing cooperation just in the area of ​​defense. At the beginning of January, 2017, more specific information appeared on Vietnam’s purchase of the first batch of India’s medium-range “Akash” air defense systems (a modernized version of the Soviet system “CUBE”) and the subsequent organization of their production in Vietnam.

China’s negative response to that information was not long in coming. However, it is hardly enthusiastically that Delhi has viewed photos from space showing a Chinese nuclear submarine “parked” (also at the beginning of January, 2017) in the largest Pakistani port city of Karachi, i.e. almost near the Pakistani-Indian border.

The Japanese Prime Minister’s regular tour across four countries in South-East Asia has become another piece of evidence of Japan’s comprehensive strengthening of its position in a very important region.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”