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Japan’s Suga and Asia

/ 05:01 AM November 28, 2020

In his diplomatic debut after taking over from Shinzo Abe as Japan’s prime minister in September, Yoshihide Suga, with little experience in the foreign policy domain, chose visits to Vietnam and Indonesia in order to deepen ties with the two Southeast Asian nations.

The twin visits need to be seen from the perspective of geostrategy and geoeconomics in the evolving scenario in the Indo-Pacific region.

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The growing bonhomie between Japan and Vietnam stems from the increasing belligerence of China that threatens the established regional order as it attempts to rewrite it on its own terms with little respect or concern for other Asian nations’ sensitivities. The same is true of Japan’s ties with Indonesia and for that matter with the Asean grouping.

A key component of the discussion between Suga and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc was to strengthen security and economic ties, including an agreement in principle for Japan to export military gear and technology amid the perceived threat from China. For Japan, Vietnam, which is serving as Asean chair this year, is the key to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific.

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Japan’s foreign policy priority is to balance its deep economic ties with China with security concerns, including Beijing’s push to assert claims over disputed Japan-controlled Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, Vietnam and other Asean members have territorial feuds with China but are wary of alienating a big economic partner and reluctant to get trapped in an intense confrontation between the United States and China. China claims swathes of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone as well as the Paracel and Spratly Islands and has drawn a nine-dash line overlapping exclusive economic zones of other claimants, thereby creating a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

The series of forays by Chinese naval warships into contested waters in complete violation of the territorial rights of others has turned the South China Sea into one of the most dangerous hotspots. Any further attempt by China to escalate tensions could have consequences that China could regret later.

In a sweeping reversal of policy, Japan ended a decades-old ban on overseas arms sales in 2014 to help strengthen the nation’s military and lower the cost of home-built military equipment. This was the best that the Abe administration could do, as doing away with Article 9 of the Constitution that prevents Japan either from manufacturing or exporting arms, was next to impossible. This allowed Suga to engage in talks with Vietnam, Indonesia, and possibly later with Thailand on deals to allow such exported arms. Another dimension of the visit is that it coincided with Japan’s efforts to diversify its supply chains and reduce reliance on China by bringing production home or moving it to Southeast Asia, for which the Abe government had allocated some capital in its stimulus package.

Vietnam is a popular choice for Japanese firms. Vietnam is the country that is seen as the site of the next economic miracle as the country has registered consistent high economic growth despite the pandemic. Half of the 30 Japanese firms that used a 23.5 billion yen ($222.9 million) government stimulus package to diversify supply chains in Southeast Asia targeted Vietnam. Vietnam has done its bit to aggressively court such investment.

Until now, Japanese security assistance has been to civilian agencies like the Vietnamese coast guard, but not the military. Now with the new agreement inked, Japan shall sell military equipment and technology to Vietnam. Japan’s first ever foreign military sale of defense equipment since 2014 had been to the Philippines when Japan sold a mix of long-range and mobile air surveillance radars.

Japan and Vietnam share common concerns about China’s maritime ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region, which is why it makes sense for them to cooperate on maritime security issues. Japan may not have much recent experience with providing security assistance, but it has a huge amount of experience with overseas development that could be critical at this time.

The South China Sea is at the center of the tensions in the region. China claims the entirety of the South China Sea on the basis of “historic rights,” a position unsupported under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Though Indonesia is not a party to the dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

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As regards the positioning of Indonesia, it aligns its views with Japan but has reservations, too. Indonesia is critical of the Japanese government for being inactive as Japanese companies plan to relocate their production bases from China to Vietnam but not to Indonesia. Indonesia is not yet comfortable with the Quad idea as it might annoy China, whose enormous economic and military might may not be overlooked as it perceives the move to contain it. Such a perception would mean oversimplifying the current geopolitical landscape.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar expressed his unhappiness a day before Suga was to land in Jakarta, saying that Japan’s regional efforts to contain the pandemic were unsatisfactory. During his meeting with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Suga briefed the Indonesian side about his Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative and ensured Japan’s unequivocal support of the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

With Hanoi holding the rotating Asean chair, it hosted this month the East Asia Summit. That could have been an opportunity to convert any trust deficit to build on strategic ties. The Statesman/ANN

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Rajaram Panda is a former senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 media titles in the region.

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TAGS: Asia and Pacific, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, Yoshihide Suga
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