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Japan’s Abe Seeks Regional Mechanism to Counter Assertive China

Friday, Feb. 1, 2013

In a recent visit to Southeast Asia, his first overseas trip as Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe openly baited Beijing over the disputed Senkaku Islands. In a direct reference to China, Abe declared, "Open seas are public assets, and Japan will do its utmost to protect them by cooperating with the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations].” During the three-day trip, in which he visited Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, Abe underscored his key concern by repeatedly voicing Japan’s opposition to any changing of the “status quo by force” -- especially in territorial disputes involving China and its neighbors in East Asia.

Since winning parliamentary elections in mid-December, Abe has not missed a chance to send purposeful signals to Beijing. Shortly after assuming office, Abe spoke about a Japanese military renewal, to include revisiting Tokyo’s “pacifist” posture. He even went so far as to propose the establishment of a "democratic security diamond": a strategic alliance of like-minded Indo-Pacific countries that share anxieties about China's growing naval might. Indeed, recent moves by Tokyo in Southeast Asia suggest that Japan could be seeking to create a new regional security mechanism to counter China’s assertive military tactics in the East and South China Seas.

As much as Abe’s recent statements and visits highlight Japanese concern about China’s growing maritime assertiveness, they also suggest a larger game plan aimed at forging a string of regional strategic relationships in which Japan can be both a partner and a patron state. The essentials of his plan are simple: Collaborate on joint projects and provide economic support to growing regional nations; in return, expect the diplomatic backing of regional partners in Japan’s territorial disputes with China. In other words, Abe envisions a new regional “hub and spokes” model, with Japan at the center.

The most significant indicator of the new balancing strategy is Japan’s newfound interest in regional security diplomacy. Japan is an active partner in a robust trilateral strategic dialogue with the U.S. and Australia and has lately expressed interest in establishing a similar arrangement involving Australia and India. During his previous stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, Abe had proposed that India join the U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral grouping to formalize a four-way strategic dialogue. His efforts were undone by China’s strong and vocal opposition to the first formal meeting of the quadrilateral grouping, after which the arrangement was abandoned.

But while the quadrilateral initiative faltered, an increasing number of security concerns in the region prompted India, Japan and the U.S. to pursue a regular trilateral dialogue, the latest of which was held in October. An important item on the agenda was maritime security. Japan also appears intent on forging a cooperative relationship with Russia. Abe's outreach to Moscow immediately after his election shows he is keen to mend fences, preferably by signing a formal peace treaty.   ASEAN powerhouse Indonesia has also agreed to boost defense cooperation with Japan.  

While Japan’s relationships with the major regional military powers will likely constitute the bigger spokes in the new model, the smaller spokes are also necessary to give the model political legitimacy in the region. The bolstering of ties with smaller Southeast Asian countries is clearly intended to shore up support for Japan’s security agenda in East Asia, but any proposal of a lasting strategic partnership will need to be backed up with lucrative economic packages. In Hanoi, therefore, Abe was quick to announce a $500 million aid grant for three infrastructure projects. Japan is already Vietnam's largest foreign investor, with investment totaling $29 billion. In Bangkok, Abe expressed interest in developing high-speed rail and water management projects, while also reaffirming Japan’s strong support for the Dawei deep-sea port and economic zone in Myanmar, projects of considerable interest to Thailand.

At the regional level, Tokyo’s enthusiastic support for ASEAN’s efforts to address maritime security challenges is another indicator of Japan’s new security strategy. Japanese backing has ensured that ASEAN Maritime Forum meetings are held regularly every year, with discussions at the past three meetings mainly revolving around maritime security concerns.

Tokyo has also been a major promoter of the newly instituted Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) initiative, which held its first meeting in Manila in October. The EAMF consists of ASEAN Regional Forum countries, but also nations from the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, meaning that both China and the U.S. are members. While EAMF’s aim is to explore ways of bolstering maritime security and cooperation in East Asia, the underlying objective would conceivably be the adoption of a binding maritime code of conduct to, if not constrain China, at least hold it accountable for any adventurous moves in the South and East China Seas. For Japan and the U.S., the initiative’s success will be crucial in institutionalizing a broader regional security architecture.

Having constructed a formal regional mechanism, Japan’s leaders now seem to believe they can forge a broad-based coalition to establish a code of conduct on territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea. For this to happen, Japan must leverage regional strategic anxieties about China and burnish its own credentials as a serious economic partner and provider of aid.

Significantly, the new regional balancing strategy would not be prejudicial to U.S. influence in the region. Japan’s treaty alliance with the U.S. remains the linchpin of its security strategy. But Tokyo is well aware of Washington’s reluctance to participate directly in moves to contain China. Far from expecting the U.S. to play a visible security role, the new mechanism would seek to shift the burden of responsibility for conflict avoidance onto regional states -- an outcome Washington may find suited to its interests. Tokyo's renewed focus on Southeast Asia may also provide the American rebalancing toward Asia the strategic space and time it needs to succeed.

While reiterating that ownership of the Senkakus is nonnegotiable, Abe has now offered talks to China, urging Beijing not to let the territorial dispute damage economic ties. In the meantime, Abe is ramping up his regional diplomacy, geared toward shoring up a common defense.

Abhijit Singh is a research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, in New Delhi, India. He focuses on political and strategic developments in West and South Asia and littoral security in the Indian Ocean region.

Photo: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Sept. 16, 2012 (photo by Wikimedia user TTTNIS).