Since his recent assumption of the office, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has dramatically redirected Japanese foreign policy. Towards the tailend of Shinzo Abe’s administration, the first signs of economic policies aimed at an ‘economic decoupling’ with mainland China were seen, but Japan is now aiming to radically diversify its economic supply chains and untangle its business affairs from those of China. Many of those Japanese business abandoning China are relocating their production capacity to Southeast Asia.
As part of the China exodus, Japan has pledged to increase Southeast Asian nations’ maritime security and to help Southeast Asian nations in other ways. Prime Minister Suga as part of his first official overseas trip as leader pushed his vision for greater consensus and coordination regarding China’s growing influence amongst the region. He has visited the capitals of both Vietnam and Indonesia in the past week alone. Speaking in Jakarta earlier this week, Suga stated that “In the Indo-Pacific that connects maritime transport between Japan and ASEAN, we can achieve peace and prosperity only by fully implementing rule of law that allows anyone freedom and opennes.”. He added that “in the South China Sea, opposite actions are being taken and we are closely watching with grave concern.” He referenced recent disputes between China and ASEAN member states over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.
As a general approach, Suga has urged all parties involved to seek peaceful resolution of such issues, while attempting to find common ground where possible. However, Suga has also pledged to increase the defensive ties between Japan and the ASEAN nations.
With China growing as a military power, the security threat that it poses can be expected to have an emboldening effect on Japan. In Hanoi, Suga announced that “the two sides agreed to tighten cooperation on regional challenges including the issue of the South China Sea.”
In both Indonesia and Vietnam, Prime Minister Suga expressed concern that Southeast Asian countries are vital to what Japan calls a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” a vision of future economic and security cooperation. Started as a means of countering China’s growing influence and power over the region, Suga has since denied criticism from mainland China that the policy is effectively an Asian NATO. In the current climate, the likelihood of this happening seems relatively slim, particularly with Singaporean diplomats criticising and demanding the expulsion from ASEAN of Cambodia and Laos.
For Suga, the goal is “achieving a rule-based free and open Indo-Pacific in this region [that] contributes to the peace and prosperity for the entire world.” His plan is not for there to be a membership organisation, but rather for an order in which Japan “can cooperate with any country that shares the view.” Suga has agreed to work closely with President Widodo of Indonesia, and announced a “$470 million loan for medical supplies and equipment” and infrastructure support for Indonesia, with defence talks and technology transfers also being discussed by both nations.
A similar deal was announced by Japan and Vietnam involving the export of defence equipment and technology. This makes Vietnam the twelfth nation to have struck such a deal with Japan, joining the United States, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and the Philippines in doing so, while Japan is also looking to conclude a similar agreement with Malaysia in the immediate future. Furthermore, Vietnam agreed to buy six coastguard patrol boats worth $345 million from Japan just in August 2020.
Taken together these actions show that Japan could be looking to further entrench itself into ASEAN regional security as a means of undermining China’s economic and military power in the region. Given that Indonesia and Vietnam are the leading ASEAN nations, such a strategy could be strong signal of how a ‘neutral’ organisation may lean in the future. However, as mentioned previously the inclusion of Cambodia and Laos is likely to heighten internal tensions amongst ASEAN countries, much to Singapore and Japan’s annoyance.
Nathan Wilson is a student of philosophy and politics at the University of Stirling, specialising in International Politics and Political Violence within the Asia-Pacific region. He previously studied abroad at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.