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.