Prime Minister Abe’s Southeast Asia Tour: A Reality Check

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe undertook a 6-day tour to the Asia-Pacific between 12 and 17 January, 2017. These visits were aimed at strengthening cooperation with the US alliance countries (Philippines and Australia) and others (Indonesia, the largest democracy in the region and Vietnam, the chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) in an age of geo-political fears that have emerged in the region as President Donald Trump has decided to withdraw from the mega-trans-regional trading arrangement Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and abandon former President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia policy. Both had been close to Prime Minister Abe’s dream of forming the Indo-Pacific era and Japan’s desire of assuming a prominent role in the region. Now that the new US administration itself is no longer interested in the rebalancing strategy, it would be a tough test for Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries to sustain their spirit for reducing Chinese hegemony in the region and to counter-balance its maritime assertiveness in the South and East China Seas. This commentary seeks to highlight the takeaways from PM Abe’s visit to Southeast Asia.

The Philippines

Philippines was the first leg of PM Abe’s overseas trip to Southeast Asia and Oceania in 2017. In an order to keep pace with Chinese promises of assisting President Duterte’s administration in its priority areas which include a war on drug, fighting terrorism and infrastructure development, Mr. Abe mentioned about continued Japanese support to Manila in fighting those menaces. A five-year $8.8 billion aid and investment package was announced for Manila. In his October visit to China, President Duterte was however able to sign business deals worth $13.5 billion.

Both Japan and Philippines have conflicting interests in South and East China Seas vis-à-vis China and the previous administration of Philippines under the leadership of President Aquino III filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague against China’s maritime assertiveness, a positive result of which brought temporary relief to many in the region including Japan. For these reasons, PM Abe, in a press meet in Philippines, pointed out to the importance of maritime safety and freedom of navigation. He mentioned, “The South China Sea holds sea lanes that are crucial not only to the regions around it, but also to the growth of global economy”. However PM Abe did not forget to praise President Duterte on the latter’s efforts to renew ties with China post the PCA verdict as there are little options left with these countries other than adopting an engaging China policy. The truth is, Philippines is facing multidimensional challenges, both at the domestic and regional levels, and hence, it has opted for a more open approach towards China. President Duterte might be considering maintaining equivocal approach towards China and US and its alliances in the region. As Japan understands the Filipino perspective, it is expected that PM Abe will continue to be the “..most proactive global leader in the region- recalibrating Japanese foreign policy like never before since the end of World War II while rapidly reaching out to the United States … and President Duterte as the latter diversifies Philippine strategic entanglements by reaching out to China and Russia”. Philippines’ newly adopted foreign policy approach that encourages cordial relations with all great powers rather than relying on one single country was evident as President Duterte and PM Abe announced for Japanese participation in US-Philippines Balikatan exercise on the one hand and expressing keen interests for Chinese Maritime Silk Road and One Belt One Road programmes on the other.

Indonesia

Prime Minister Abe visited Indonesia after Philippines and Australia. In Indonesia, PM Abe and President Joko Widodo discussed about Java Northern Line upgrading project, Patimban Seaport project, Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit project, Java-Sumatra Interconnection Transmission Line Project and Masela Gas Block Development. Both the leaders spoke about Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum and synergies between them. Both of them spoke about the significance of cooperation between Japan and Indonesia and between Japan and ASEAN so that regional security and stability are promoted. Besides, PM Abe also re-endorsed Japan’s continued support for ASEAN unity and centrality. This meeting between PM Abe and President Jokowi was the fourth one in less than two years and given Indonesia’s foreign policy priorities which speak of sovereignty, territorial integrity, economic freedom, it is only normal for the archipelagic country to keep its chances open for continuing interactions and collaborations with all stakeholders. This explains why Indonesia, despite having China as one of the top foreign investors, will continue warm relations with Japan too. In fact, bilateral trade between Japan and Indonesia stood at $23.8 billion between January and October 2016, in contrast to Sino-Indonesian bilateral trade that stood at US$ 5469 million in 2013.

Vietnam

Vietnam was the last stop for Shinzo Abe’s January visit to the Asia-Pacific. For Vietnam, Japan is its largest source of Official Development Assistance (ODA), second largest source of foreign investment, third largest source of foreign tourists and fourth largest trade partner.[1] PM Abe promised to help Vietnam with US$ 1.05 billion in ODA which will be used for projects and programme aimed at maritime safety and security, climate change and improving the sewage system. Besides, six patrol boats will be provided to Vietnam by Japan and two advanced radar-based satellites will be delivered too. In Hanoi, PM Abe said, “We will strongly support Vietnam’s enhancing its maritime law enforcement capability.” This came as both Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc expressed their concerns over maritime security and resolution of territorial disputes through talks and adherence to the international law. The visit to Vietnam by PM Abe was significant for Japan as Vietnam now plays a key role in the Japanese foreign policy that wants to reduce China’s domination in the region, something which is desired by Vietnam too. Hence, it is expected that Japan’s proactive diplomacy will help Vietnam gaining some support while it still prefers to condemn China in a stronger voice (in comparison to its fellow ASEAN members) on its assertiveness on South China Sea. However, as Vietnam has started to expand a runway in one of the disputed South China Sea islands, the defence and security partnerships between Japan and Vietnam may escalate tension in the region.

As the new US administration is shifting its focus from the Asia-Pacific, these countries are left with little choice but to create a cluster of powers, guided by similar interests to maintain the status quo in the region. Japan’s substantial developmental assistance and investments have already placed the country in a positive light in the region and hopefully, this should enable the country in strengthening ties with the individual countries in Southeast Asia.