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.
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.
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.?”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.” — (Bloomberg)
I think there’s a slow transformation of the international relations framework worldwide, exemplified in Asia.
U.S. military might will be decreasing in the years ahead. The U.S.’s lack of aggressive support in Asia may be on purpose. U.S. strategy may be to withdraw support little by little in efforts to get other countries to begin their own alliances so that it won’t have to be the world’s policeman anymore.
America needs to work on improving domestically, not to mention accumulate/save economic resources for retiring baby boomers. Perhaps this is a very smart long-view move; the effort to not maintain a global military presence, which will cost precious resources and increase national debt.
Countries are “grow-ups” and can take care of themselves if they feel that the “public good” of American protection is fleeting. We are seeing that now.
Just some ramblings and they may be naive. But whatevs.