03.06.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan in “Grand Manoeuvres” of May 2015

japa34234The strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific region is shaped during the course of “The Grand Manoeuvres” held by the main actors of the regional “Great Game.” The main act of the Japanese manoeuvring this May was undoubtedly the state visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the United States, of which some results were discussed earlier.

Other notable events of this kind should include the working visit of the Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Tun Razak in Tokyo (May 25), the 7th meeting of the leaders of Japan and the Pacific Islands Forum (22-23 May), the visit to the People’s Republic of China by a representative delegation of the Japanese parliament (on May 4-6) and a large-scale campaign, carried out in Beijing on May 21-22 within “people’s diplomacy.”

What all these actions and events have in common is that they directly or indirectly (and in a controversial way) affect the interests of China who is another leading participant in “the Great Game” in the Asia-Pacific Region.

And so, Najib Tun Razak’s visit to Japan took place against the backdrop of another escalation of the situation in the South China Sea (SCS), in which the political opponents of China accused Beijing.

We are talking about Chinese operations to expand the surface of some of the small islands, the reefs of the Spratly Islands, which is the subject of the claim (in full or in part) from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and even Malaysia.

These countries suspect Beijing of intending to turn the artificial islands in full military bases with which it will be possible to control the biggest part of the SCS (85% of the surface) which China considers its territory due to “historical” reasons.

In turn, China denies the military focus of those facilities that have already been built on artificial islands, while stressing its “sovereign right to build on its territory” and that it is considered necessary.

In response to the cries of: “Help! Thief!”, that are periodically heard from a number of the above-mentioned SCS coastal countries (mainly from the Philippines and Vietnam), the “sheriff of the world” started dropping in its waters and yielding a club strongly advise the gentlemen to calm down, to solve problems in a peaceful way, without threatening each other and in line with international law.

His appearance in SCS meets the full approval from almost all of the “gentlemen.” Except for the one but most important thing, whose position in relation to the very fact of being here, “the sheriff” has reduced to a few points: “You are, in fact, why we came here from the other end of the Earth”; “We are here to make everything outs without “external” advice”, and (more recently) “Why spoil bilateral relations on such trifle matters as my problems in relations with other local gentlemen.”

The mutual manoeuvring of the United States and China, who are two major regional players, has long been one of the main factors determining the situation in the SCS. However, Japan is grappling more and more to be no less of an important regional player.

Moreover, it is likely that in the near future the “Japan-China” manoeuvres in tandem will play at least an equally important role in the SCS as the “US-China” pair. Moreover, Washington is strongly pushing for Tokyo to assume the role of “deputy sheriff”.

The results of the visit of the Prime Minister of Malaysia in Tokyo are proof of this standpoint of strengthening the presence of Japan in the SCS. Along with the expansion of multifaceted economic cooperation, Japan intends to assist in the improvement of maritime border service of Malaysia “in the face of growing Chinese influence in the SCS“.

With the extensive “Joint declaration” that was adopted following the talks, bilateral relations rise to a state of “strategic partnership” that now covers almost all aspects of bilateral relations. In particular, in the “Cooperation for peace and stability” section the two leaders said that they “reaffirmed the recently signed memorandum on bilateral cooperation in the defence sector” and the exchange of military technologies.

The Chinese factor was an invisible presence in the next meeting of Abe with the leaders of 16 countries united by “Pacific Islands Forum” (PIF), that has been taking place every three years since 1997. As you may recall, the PIF in addition to the exotic island states of the south-western part of the Pacific Ocean includes Australia and New Zealand.

The main motive of the growing interest of Japan to these countries is the same as 80 years ago. It is due to their extremely important strategic position. The role of this motif will only increase to the extent of the outcome of the regional “Great Game” within the framework of bordering Chinese maritime space and its extension to the entire area of the Pacific Ocean.

An important feature of this trend is growing interest of China to the Pacific island countries, as evidenced, in particular, President Xi Jinping’s visit to Fiji held on 21-23 November 2014. During the visit, the Chinese leader emphasised his country as being an “eternal sincere friend of the peoples of the Pacific Island States“.

S. Abe’s performance in front of the leaders of the Pacific countries was equally bright and promising. He called the already implemented Japanese projects in these countries “the beacon illuminating the way to the future.”.

As it appears from the final document of the regular Forum, Japan will continue lending its versatile help to the small island countries. At the same time further special attention will be given to solving problems that are specific to them, which consists in their vulnerability to natural disasters (mainly Typhoons), as well as to the consequences of climate change.

If the talks of Abe with the Prime Minister of Malaysia and the leaders of Pacific Islands Forum reflect a more competitive component in Japan’s manoeuvres towards the Chinese, the visit to Beijing by the Japanese parliamentary delegation and the large-scale action in the form of “people’s diplomacy” demonstrate Tokyo’s commitment to slowing down the spiralling distrust between the two major countries of Asia.

During the three-day (from 4 to 6 May) visit to Beijing of a representative delegation of 11 Japanese parliamentarians, headed by the deputy head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party Masahiko Komura, negotiations were held with their Chinese counterparts and senior officials in the CPC hierarchy.

Commenting on the visit he emphasised that the “unfreezing” of bilateral political relations has become possible as a result of the initiation of the leaders of China and Japan in November 2014 (during the regular APEC summit.

However, what was even more symbolically significant was the “extraordinarily warm address” by Xi Jinping to the 3,000 Japanese (businessmen, politicians and tourists) who gathered in Beijing on May 21-22. The large-scale reciprocal tourism can be seen as a peculiar manifestation of the “people’s diplomacy”.

In this regard, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan increased sharply (83%, up to 2.4 million) in 2014. Each of them, among other things, spent an average of $1 000 in the country, that is of no small importance to the stagnant Japanese economy.

Hence, the overall picture of the May manoeuvres of Japan toward the Chinese is contradictory. Just as the regional situation as a whole.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.