Japan is keeping Southeast Asia at the heart of its Indo-Pacific strategy
The signing by Japan and India last month of a new military logistics pact under an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement is worthy of attention, particularly given that Japan is revisiting its national security strategy and hinting at a shift in its defence policy from one of passive pacifism to proactive, multilateral pacifism.
The fundamental takeaway from the agreement with India is Japan’s greater defence outreach to the Indo-Pacific, the confluence of two oceans, at the centre of which lies Southeast Asia. Japan has strongly advocated the idea of Indo-Pacific at all multilateral forums, and former prime minster Shinzo Abe first used the term in 2007.
The icing on the cake for Japanese engagement in the Indo-Pacific is its access to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands provided under this pact. Japan’s presence in the Andaman Sea signals its intent of greater defence partnership with Southeast Asia.
Additionally, the newly elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is planning his first state visit to Vietnam and Indonesia. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato has stressed face-to-face exchanges as critical for diplomacy and reaffirmed Japan’s endorsement of the “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Vietnam and Indonesia are important members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has claimed centrality in the Indo-Pacific construct. The foreign ministers of the “Quad” – Japan, India, Australia and the United States – met on the sidelines of last year’s UN General Assembly and reiterated Asean centrality in the Indo-Pacific.
Japan’s most crucial sphere for security is naturally its own neighbourhood. It relies on a “shield and spear” system of alliance, where the US is the offensive power and Japan is the defensive power. The US-Japan alliance features prominently in Japanese security strategy at all levels.
The ownership of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is a bone of contention with China. Japan has so far managed the issue diplomatically, but China’s obtrusive actions in the East and South China Seas – especially since the onset of the pandemic – have marred any guarantee of peace.
US actions on all its international fronts have cast doubts on its dependability. It is withdrawing from Afghanistan, Germany and other strategic regions. In East Asia, the US has sometimes accused Japan of being a free rider and not doing enough to take care of its own security.
While the US will not quickly disappear from the Pacific given its own interests, it can be expected to tighten its spending. A lot depends on who assumes the office of president in this year’s election, but Japan has always found it challenging to deal with American presidents.
Titli Basu, an associate fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi and a Japanese security expert, writes that the “alliance dilemma has compelled Tokyo, which is a secondary power dependent on the system leader, to manage the fear of abandonment and entrapment.”
Unsurprisingly, Japan wants to rethink its security strategy and not solely depend on the US for its defence. Many in Japan have pushed the discourse on strike capability.
Japan has made great strides in becoming one of the most favoured countries by Southeast Asian nations. Its large financial assistance during the 1997 Asian economic crisis and its peacekeeping role in regional conflicts have earned Japan a high degree of trust within Asean. Japanese investments in Southeast Asia are valued at US$367 billion, much larger than China’s at US$255 billion.
As Japan looks to decrease its economic interdependence with China and shift its production facilities, Southeast Asia could be the most lucrative destination. Indonesia’s government reforms have attracted companies moving out of China, including US$850 million worth of factories in June alone. This included Japanese companies such as Panasonic and Sagami Electric.
Parag Khanna, the founder of strategic advisory firm FutureMap, says the stars have aligned economically, demographically and geopolitically for Southeast Asian growth. Even after the pandemic, Vietnam is expected to grow at 6.8 per cent and Indonesia at 5 per cent in 2021, while the combined growth of the region is expected to be 4.7 per cent.
Suga was Abe’s chief cabinet secretary and is widely seen as continuing his predecessor’s legacy of the Indo-Pacific vision. Abe also made his first state visit to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia after he became prime minister in 2012.
All the major powers in the region have made efforts to court Asean countries. The waters of Southeast Asia are rich in resources as well as carriers of heavy trade and cargo. As contestation has increased in the region over disputed territories, volatility has naturally gone up.
Japan’s new leadership of the Pacific can help build stability in the region. It has long been a strong advocate of human security in Southeast Asia and is the only country with as much economic and cultural weight in the region as China.
The Quad partners met in Tokyo on October 6 to discuss regional affairs, including the fight against disinformation and the tendency of regional powers to flout the rules-based order. Asean countries, which have largely balanced between China and the United States, could look at diversifying their stakeholders of security.
Akash Sahu is a researcher in Indo-Pacific geopolitics and Southeast Asian studies