Japan’s growing engagement in the Indo-Pacific

japan-abe-koreaJapan’s recent decision to re-interpret its Article 9 of the constitution has marked a significant step in its defence policies. Of late, the Abe administration has been making efforts to re-engage with the Southeast Asian nations, renew its bilateral relationship with key actors in the region and play a bigger role in the evolving security architecture in the Indo-pacific. Beijing’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea and East China Sea has to an extent provided the platform for Japan to seek closer ties with countries such as Vietnam, Philippines, Australia and India.

That maritime disputes are threatening regional security was clear at the conglomeration of the defence ministers’ and other senior government officials at the IISS Asia-Security Summit also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. Held from 30 May-01 June 2014, the keynote speech at the forum was delivered by Shinzo Abe. Given the incidents that took place earlier in the month- of China placing a giant oil rig in Vietnamese waters- the issue of unilateral actions by countries and assertive behaviour in the South China Sea resounded throughout the dialogue. Tokyo’s mantra for the dialogue was “Japan for the rule of law, Asia for the rule of law, And the rule of law for all of us”- a theme that is largely seen to be violated by Beijing when it comes to the disputes.

On behalf of his country, Abe offered its support to the approaches undertaken by Philippines and Vietnam to resolve disputes indicating at the willingness to join hands against Beijing to come to a peaceful resolution of the conflicts. He stated that Japan ‘strongly supports the efforts by the Philippines calling for a resolution to the dispute in the South China Sea that is truly consistent with these three principles. We likewise support Viet Nam in its efforts to resolve issues through dialogue’. He also urged ASEAN to push through the Code of Conduct with China asking if it isn’t the “time to make a firm pledge to return to the spirit and the provisions of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that all concerned countries in the Sea agreed to, and not to undertake unilateral actions associated with a permanent physical change?”. While Abe rarely made a direct comment at China, his speech revolved around aggressive and unilateral actions by China that now needs to be challenged. He also extended his support to the governments of the other disputing nations to unite against China. Abe’s remarks were strongly retorted by Chinese Lieutenant General Wang who did not shy away from pointing out that the “speeches of Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel … [were] pre-coordinated. They supported and encouraged each other in provoking and challenging China, taking advantage of being the first to speak at the Dialogue.”

Since coming into power, Abe has shown signs of a greater re-engagement with Southeast Asia by strengthening bilateral ties with the ASEAN countries. Within the first 11 months of returning to office, Abe had toured all 10 ASEAN nations renewing its commitment towards maintaining stability in the region. Tokyo also pledged development aid to some of the countries and was on a mission to establish and re-new ties with the region. Japan’s efforts to re-connect with the region did not end with Abe’s tour-Japan was highly applauded for its assistance delivered to the Philippines in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, while Beijing was criticised immensely for its measly aid to Manila. Tokyo is also engaging with the navies of the region including India through exercises, aid and training. While Beijing is increasingly being seen as a threat, some nations in Southeast Asia are welcoming Japan’s support to protect and maintain their claims in the South China Sea. Although a key platform to maintain peace and security in the region, ASEAN has failed to project a unified view on the issue of maritime disputes. It is important to note that ASEAN is not a single geographical or political entity and the member nations bilateral ties with Beijing, restricts ASEAN’s ability to come to a conclusion.

Going beyond the ASEAN, Tokyo is also earnestly engaging with India and Australia on maritime issues and building closer ties with the two countries. During his visit in 2014 as the Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day, the two Prime Minister’s “reiterated the commitment of Japan and India to the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes based on the principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”. Noting the success of the existing maritime exercise between the two (JIMEX), New Delhi extended the invitation to Tokyo for the MALABAR Exercises in 2014. Japan and India are also increasing their defence and economic engagements resulting in stronger bilateral ties between the two. Soon after the Abe administration allowed the Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF) to fight in collective self defence in foreign soil, Abe made a historic visit to Canberra-being the first Japanese to address the Australian Parliament. During his speech, Abe offered his condolences for the wartime horrors re-assuring that Tokyo will never “let the horrors of the past century’s history repeat themselves”. Abe also underlined the emergence of a new “special relationship” between Tokyo and Canberra noting that relationship between the two countries will only grow stronger. During the visit, Tokyo and Canberra signed the Japan-Australian Economic Partnership Agreement and as well as other defence and security agreements. The two countries have also reportedly signed a historic agreement to ‘jointly develop submarine technologies’.

Tokyo’s growing engagement with the countries of the region is a strong reflection of Japan’s desire to play a greater role in regional security. As Beijing continues to take assertive and aggressive actions in the region, Tokyo has found a way to renew its partnerships with the key actors of the region. While Japan has made an effort to reach out to the other nations of the region, it has equally received strong support from these nations in its desire to play a more constructive role in the Indo-Pacific. Japan’s growing engagement in the Indo-Pacific is also reflective of the country’s willingness to step outside of the US umbrella and forge stronger bilateral relationships. Continuing unilateral actions by Beijing in important Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCS) is a matter of concern carrying high risks of an armed conflict. If ASEAN collectively fails to provide the platform required in resolving the issues, it is inevitable that tri-lateral and bi-lateral agreements will emerge in the Indo-Pacific to secure SLOCS and to assure freedom of navigation.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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