On October 18-21, this year, Yoshihide Suga, Prime Minister of Japan, visited Vietnam and Indonesia, an event far from ordinary in the complex political game unfolding in the (sub)region of Southeast Asia. This is also because Southeast Asia is a crucial element of a much larger Indo-Pacific region, shifting focus on global political processes.
Southeast Asia is particularly important in Japan’s foreign policy, which is already a major regional player. The heads and members of the Cabinet of Japan regularly make visits to the Southeast Asian countries and receive guests from them.
The current trip was planned by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but was carried out by his successor Yoshihide Suga, who headed the Cabinet from September 16. It is significant that just a month later (as they say, barely accepting the case), the new Japanese Prime Minister went abroad, and the main purpose of his visit was to visit the two leading countries of Southeast Asia. Following his predecessor, who made his first trip abroad to the same countries (plus Thailand) in January 2013, three weeks after taking up the post of Prime Minister for the second time.
Let’s pay special attention to the general political situation that has been forming recently in the Indo-Pacific Region, which was the background of Yoshihide Suga’s tour. Its main component is the confrontation between the two leading world powers, which takes on a global character. Still, it is especially acute in Taiwan and the South China Sea, which form a single zone of high tension.
As in the confrontation with the Soviet Union during the cold war, in the fight against a new geopolitical opponent, the United States seeks to create a block (this time anti-Chinese) of allied States. A step in this direction was taken at a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the four countries (the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) that form the Quad. This event was held in Tokyo two weeks before the Japanese Prime Minister’s trip to Southeast Asia.
An essential Quad event in the defense sector will be the next Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian ocean in November. This time (for the first time) will involve the navies of all four countries.
Simultaneously, it is too early to talk about launching the process of creating a new fully-fledged military-political organization, as there was a lack of anti-Chinese criticism in the speeches of three out of the four participants in the Tokyo meeting was too obvious. The only exception was Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, now the undisputed leader in the fight against China (who is becoming a comprehensive character), led by part of the American political establishment.
During the tour under discussion, there was no anti-Chinese criticism (or any mention of China) either from the Japanese Prime Minister or his host colleagues from Vietnam and Indonesia. There was concern about China becoming one of the global powers with its interests in Southeast Asia. This, however, was expressed in the form of allusion and through the use of recently established “iconic” phrases—for example, the problem of ensuring freedom of navigation in the region and flights over its airspace.
Let’s not forget that Vietnam and Indonesia are in a state of territorial disputes with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This issue (also rather implicit) was present at previous negotiations.
But a significant factor in the relations with China, as with almost all Asian countries (and Australia), is that today China is among their leading trade and economic partners. Or what turns out to be the main one for Australia, for example.
These conflicting factors explain the complexity (“ambiguity”) of China’s relations with the same Asian partners. Generally speaking, the same can be said about US-Chinese ties, since the demonstrative anti-Chinese orientation of Washington’s current foreign policy is a consequence of attempts to transfer the United States’ escalating internal problems the international arena.
Special attention was paid to defense during the Japanese Prime Minister’s first foreign trip to Southeast Asia and the talks held in Hanoi and Jakarta. Once again, an important point should be emphasized: the “Chinese context” of this sphere is present in the media comments, but it was not explicitly mentioned in the public statements of the negotiators themselves.
It should also be noted that the Japanese Prime Minister did not discuss cooperation in the field of defense from scratch, even though it has been on the agenda of Japan’s negotiations with the Southeast Asian countries for several years. The relevant documents are mentioned in the “Joint Statement” (), which was adopted following the state visit of former Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang to Japan in May-June 2018.
A few comments should be made here. First, the sphere of defense is, to some extent, an integral element of all interstate negotiation processes, and it is not clear why it should be absent concerning the outside world of today’s Japan. During this trip, Yoshihide Suga, the current Prime Minister of Japan, hosted a meyo meeting with the Defense Ministers of Japan and Australia. From the “Joint Statement” adopted by its participants, it follows that the long-established process of military-political rapprochement between the two countries is receiving a new and rather versatile impetus.
Secondly, the defense sphere of Tokyo’s relations with external partners (except for the United States, with which Japan is bound by the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960) is at the stage of formation, and the primary tool for ensuring national interests is still the Japanese economy which is third in the world.
Third (and yet), the role of the defense tool in Japan’s foreign policy should be expected to increase as it (inevitably) “normalizes.” In particular, it is highly likely that a variety of Japanese military-industrial complex products will appear in the international arms markets. The latter needs this in order to increase the serial production of weapons systems and, consequently, reduce their costs. This is extremely important for the process of marketing products to the Ministry of defense.
In the context of the inevitable increase in the weight of the defense instrument in Japan’s positioning in the international arena, maintaining stability in Japanese-Chinese relations is critical for the region’s situation. And it seems that the understanding of this problem is present in both Beijing and Tokyo. However, competition elements for influence on Southeast Asia (and in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole) between the two leading Asian powers will continue to be present. This, in particular, was reflected in the comments that accompanied the trip of the new Prime Minister of Japan to the countries of the susceptible region for Beijing.
China Global Times drew first of all attention to the fact that a comprehensive “strengthening of ties” with the Southeast Asian countries, which was confirmed during the discussed tour, will not have a negative impact here on the implementation of Belt and Road Initiative, the critical project of Beijing.
As for the issue of ” freedom of navigation” in the South China SEA, the same newspaper draws attention to the “extraterritoriality” of Japan to everything that is happening here. Which, translated into everyday language, sounds something like this: “Generally speaking, guys, you don’t have much to do with “local” problems.”
Finally, a preliminary assessment of the first international trip results from Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. can be reduced by the assumption that it will not bring any innovations to the already established course of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, aimed at developing a comprehensive presence of Japan in the sub-region of Southeast Asia.
The main issue on the agenda of this current policy in Southeast Asia is how this course of action will affect Japan’s relations with China.
Vladimir Terekhov, an expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.