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Difficult trilateral relations

Publication Date : 13-12-2013

 

A special three-day summit between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is scheduled to start on December 13, but Kyodo news agency has already reported that the two sides have reached an agreement on maintaining airspace safety over the high seas and will release a joint statement on the issue. The reported move is widely seen as targeting China's newly established Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.

Will the summit issue a joint statement aimed at China? What direction will Japan-Asean relations take? And does the intimate Japan-Asean relationship being bandied about by Japan mean the two sides will forge a strategic alliance against China in certain fields? China has enough reasons to be concerned about these questions.

The introduction of the Fukuda Doctrine in the 1970s marked Japan's major strategic shift towards Asean. The doctrine says Japan will never become a military power, and will develop "heart-to-heart" relations with Southeast Asian countries and commit itself as an equal partner in establishing peace and prosperity in the region.

During the Cold War, the pacifist Fukuda Doctrine and its practice by Japan made many Asean member states pardon Tokyo for the atrocities and suffering it had unleashed on them during World War II. This helped the development of Asean-Japan relations, paving the way for an improvement in Japan's bilateral ties with Asean member states after the end of the Cold War.

In recent years, however, Japan has intensified its diplomatic and economic initiatives toward Asean for three specific reasons. The first is security consideration. China's rapid rise, along with its military buildup, has rattled Japan, which on many occasions has expressed concern over the so-called lack of transparency of the Chinese military. Japan has also voiced concern over Chinese navy ships navigating through international waters around Japan and China's increasingly assertive stance on the disputes over the islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Strategically, Japan mistakes China to be a major threat to its security.

Japan has, for all practical purposes, been playing a dual strategic game. It's true that Japan is committed to its defence-oriented alliance with the US. But it's also true that it is desperate to add the element of aggression to it. Besides, it has also been trying to lure more countries to side with it on strategic and security issues. And given Asean's irreplaceable role in regional multilateral security cooperation - along with the fact that some Asean member states also have maritime territorial disputes with China - Japan sees the Southeast Asian association as its natural ally to counterbalance China's rising influence.

The second reason for Japan's frantic diplomatic and business initiatives is economics. Owing to lack of resources within the country, Japan needs the rich natural resources in Southeast Asia.

Also, because of the continuous tension between Beijing and Tokyo, coupled with rising labour and other costs in China, many Japanese companies have started shifting their industrial units to some Southeast Asian countries, resulting in the rapid growth of Japan-Asean trade. Japan's tilt toward Southeast Asia is borne out by the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returned to power in December 2012 after five years, has already visited all the 10 Asean member states.

The third reason is strategic consideration. Ever since the end of the Cold War, Japan has been making efforts to become a "normal country" so that it can build a powerful military. Japan's diplomatic endeavours in recent years also show that it is desperate to become a permanent UN Security Council member, for which it needs the support of other countries, especially its neighbours that once suffered under Japanese invasions.

In an opinion poll conducted by the Japanese Foreign Ministry in six Southeast Asian countries in 2008, 78 per cent of the respondents familiar with the workings of the UN Security Council, supported Japan's bid to become a permanent Security Council member. This shows Japan-Asean ties have a role to play in enhancing Japan's global status, which is something China cannot overlook.

The competition between China and Japan is fierce, especially in relation to trade with Asean member states. China's good-neighbourly diplomacy and its highly profitable win-win cooperation with Southeast Asian countries are a cause for concern for Japan. That's why Japan launched the "values diplomacy", as Abe calls it, to contain China.

Also, Japan is actively involved in the development of the Mekong River basin, has increased development aid to, and investment and infrastructure construction in countries in Indochina, and tried every means to get involved in the South China Sea disputes - the latest pretext being China's Air Defence Identification Zone.

Japan's moves could thwart China's efforts to build a harmonious environment in the region. Japan is seeking to maximise its own interests by making use of China's differences with some of its neighbours. But in the long run, Japan's approach will further undermine Sino-Japanese relations and complicate the regional security situation, which is not in line with either Japan's or China's interests.

Nonetheless, Asean, which is known for its balanced diplomacy, will not get easily involved in disputes between major powers. Japan may succeed in drawing some Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines, to its side but it cannot count on the support of a majority of Asean member states or Asean as a whole to contain China.

The author is a researcher at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

 

 

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