Newly appointed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga plans to visit Southeast Asia this month largely as a gesture of support for U.S. geopolitical interests that include joining hands with smaller countries keen on resisting Chinese expansion, experts say.
Suga’s plan to touch down in Indonesia and Vietnam indicates he will follow his predecessor Shinzo Abe, who left office in September. Suga is seen so far in Japan as more focused on domestic policy, leaving him a dark horse on foreign relations.
Abe had backed Washington, Japan’s top security partner, in aiding Southeast Asian states that resent Chinese military activity in the South China Sea. Neither Japan nor the United States has a claim to the waterway, but both want China to leave it open for international use.
Japan historically stands with the United States, but since 2017 its government has warmed toward its largest trading partner China – so far without isolating Washington. The U.S. government will welcome a reaffirmation or relations with Japan, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C.
“I think it’s certainly something the U.S. would like to see, and this is one area that I think Japan is also feeling more comfortable to do rather than directly and openly pointing at China in the nose,” Yun said. “So, Japan has an intrinsic interest in developing and deepening ties with Southeast Asian countries.”
Vietnam vies for sovereignty with China over a section of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, and Indonesia protests when Chinese coast guard ships pass through its exclusive economic zone. Three other Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan separately contest China’s claims to the sea, which is prized for fisheries and energy reserves. China says it has rights to 90% of the sea, where it has built up several tiny islets, in some cases for military use.
Giving it a common bond with the Southeast Asian claimants, Japan has rousted Chinese aircraft on and off over the past two decades from parts of the East China Sea where the two sides dispute sovereignty.
The trip would help Suga “spread his wings” into diplomacy, said Jeffrey Kingston, history instructor at the Japan campus of Temple University. He’s seen at home stronger on domestic policy than foreign affairs.
Last week Tokyo hosted the second-ever ministerial talks among officials from the “Quad”, four Western-allied countries wary of Chinese maritime expansion, media reports from Japan say. Australia, India and the United States are the other three.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged the other officials to link up in protecting “partners” against “exploitation, corruption and coercion” by China’s ruling party. China protested, urging more tolerance. The Quad countries agreed to meet again.
“In terms of Japan’s foreign relations, these are two very important Southeast Asian nations, but clearly coming on the heels of the quad meeting in Tokyo there does seem to be geostrategic implications,” Kingston said.
Pompeo said in July the United States would support smaller countries that felt pinched by Chinese maritime expansion. Washington and Beijing, rival superpowers since the Cold War, had already become embroiled in trade, technology and consular disputes over the past two years. The United States counts Japan as one in a chain of Asian democracies that it can count on for geopolitical support in Asia.
Under Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, the Japan International Cooperation Agency agreed with Vietnam in July to finance construction of six patrol vessels for the Vietnamese Coast Guard. The boats will be built in Japan. Japan is already Indonesia’s largest donor country, contributing to 45% of all foreign development aid since 1960.
Japan sees Indonesia, given its 267 million population, and Vietnam as 2020 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as “two leaders in Southeast Asia”, Kingston said.
“Basically, (Suga) wants to burnish his diplomatic credentials, because generally Suga-san is known to be a domestic policy elite, so he is not as predisposed toward foreign policy like his predecessor,” said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Abe was a staunch U.S. supporter but in 2017 expressed interest in joining Beijing’s now 7-year-old, $1 trillion-plus Belt and Road initiative that’s building infrastructure across East Asia and establishing trade routes. That year was a “watershed” for Japan’s China stance, Sun said. The two sides had bickered for years before then over the East China Sea and issues left over from World War II.