Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week used what has become a customary tour of Southeast Asia to rally support for sanctions on Russia and affirm his country’s commitment to defending the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
By visiting Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand midway through his first year in office, Kishida was following in the footsteps of his two immediate predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga.
“Thailand is likely for economic reasons,” explained Hsi-hsun Tsai, associate professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “Suga previously only visited Vietnam and Indonesia. This time, Kishida visited Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Of these, Indonesia and Vietnam are bordering the South China Sea and promote freedom of navigation.”
Unlike his predecessors, however, Kishida was as much preoccupied with Russian aggression in Ukraine as with Chinese behavior in Asian waters.
Japan considers Russia's unprovoked war as a move that “shakes the foundation of international order not only in Europe but also in Asia,” according to a foreign ministry statement issued just a day after Russian troops rolled into Ukraine on February 24.
A major purpose of Kishida's trip, said Kei Koga, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, is to call on the international community to unite against such acts.
“The three countries are increasingly influential in ASEAN, so Kishida wants to use the trip to convince them to take a tougher stance against Russia in order to maintain the international order,” he told VOA.
Indonesia is especially important in that regard as this year’s chair of the Group of 20 major economic powers.
President Joko Widodo has invited both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin to this year’s G-20 summit in Jakarta, despite the pressure from several Western countries to exclude the latter.
Thailand, meanwhile, is chair of this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which is scheduled for November. Putin appeared at last year’s summit via teleconference but has not announced plans for this year.
Both Thailand and Indonesia voted in favor of a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but have been hesitant to take any further action.
Vietnam, for its part, abstained on the General Assembly vote, and has closer ties to Russia, a major source of its military weaponry. From 2000 to 2019, over 80% of Vietnam’s weapons imports came from Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
However, Hanoi is engaged in long-running maritime disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea and may be susceptible to arguments that the global rules-based order is at stake, according to Tsu-chaing Huang, assistant professor at National Taiwan Normal University.
After meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in Hanoi on May 1, Kishida told reporters that he and Chinh "agreed to strongly oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force in the South China Sea."
The premiers also agreed to enhance cooperation on Vietnam's maritime security and on Japan's Self-Defense Forces helping the country to strengthen its cybersecurity skills, according to Japan’s Kyodo news service.
Tsai, the Tamkang University professor, said Japan has been helping Vietnam to build its military capacity for many years with the goal of countering China's maritime threats. Most recently, two training ships from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted a three-day visit to Vietnam’s Tien Sa port in February.
Kishida also announced a new defense agreement with Thailand on the last day of his Southeast Asia tour before continuing to Europe for stops in Italy and Britain. The agreement would facilitate the transfer of Japanese defense hardware and technology to Thailand. Japan already has such deals with other ASEAN members, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
While welcoming such aid, some ASEAN countries may want to keep a distance from Japan because of its close strategic alliance with the United States, said Huang, the National Taiwan Normal University professor.
He said countries in the region are eager to maintain and increase their economic cooperation with both the U.S. and China, even as the rivalry between the two superpowers intensifies.
“If ASEAN countries fail to maintain a consistent position, resulting in the polarization of the political spectrum, the result of the imbalance will inevitably make ASEAN countries lose their flexibility towards both the U.S. and China,” Huang said.
Koga said that while most ASEAN countries tend not to align with either the U.S. or China, some of them have a clear preference between the two, and there is a desire to test the waters of the U.S. commitment towards its regional allies.
“Countries such as the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia that have a high level of regional security and economic commitment from the U.S. will have policies that lean toward the United States,” Koga said. “And conversely, countries such as Laos and Cambodia that have no commitment with the U.S. will have lower expectations of the U.S.”
Still other ASEAN countries may have closer ties to Japan, he said. These countries, such as Cambodia, are where Japan can function as an effective middleman, deepening its cooperation with that country to keep China in check and strengthen its strategic security deployment across the Indo-Pacific.