Sea tensions to remain as Japan, China curry ASEAN favor

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Regional bloc to benefit from powerplay, but no breakthrough likely in maritime disputes

Tourists look toward the Tokyo Skytree at the Sensoji temple in Tokyo, Japan. Starting July 1, Japan will relax visa requirements for travelers from five countries from economically resilient Southeast Asia. Analysts say Japan and China are seeking better relations with Southeast Asia for a variety of reasons, not just to counter each other. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

In the most recent explicit gesture to step up its engagement with economically resilient Southeast Asia and shore up a languishing economy, Japan will relax visa requirements for travelers from five major economies in the region.

The move comes on the heels of Japan's earlier call for stronger security ties with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Tokyo looking to boost alliances at a time of long-simmering territorial tensions with China.

But given that China is also taking steps to improve its ties with ASEAN countries, analysts are not expecting any major breakthrough in the East China Sea dispute that has soured Beijing-Tokyo relations since last year and the South China Sea tensions in which China and several ASEAN members are embroiled.

"Usually countries do this because they want to make more money from the country in question," said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the South China Sea dispute, referring to Japan's relaxed visa program.

"Better relations and trust has something to do with it but it is not the primary factor," he told Vietweek.

Overall, Japan and China are seeking better ties with Southeast Asia for a variety of reasons, not just to counter each other, analysts say.

But either way, "there is no downside for Southeast Asia, which should reap the benefits," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Starting July 1, Japan will waive visa requirements for tourists from Thailand and Malaysia, and offer multiple-entry visas to Filipino and Vietnamese travelers, The Japan Times reported Wednesday (June 26).

The visa waiver will apply to Thai travelers staying less than 15 days and to tourists from Malaysia staying for no more than three months, the newspaper said, citing the Foreign Ministry. The visa waiver will only apply to people with IC-equipped passports, it added.

The multiple-entry visa for Filipino and Vietnamese travelers will allow them to visit Japan several times within a period of three years. The maximum stay per visit will be 15 days. Japan will, meanwhile, extend the maximum stay for multiple-entry visas for Indonesian travelers to 30 days from the current 15.

"I hope that [the measures] will further develop relationships between these countries, such as an increase of travelers from these nations and improvement of convenience in the business [environment]," Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was quoted by The Japan Times as saying.

About 8.37 million foreign visitors visited Japan last year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. 780,000, or 9.3 percent, were Southeast Asian travelers. The government is looking to pull in two million from the region in 2016.

Japanese companies have indicated that Southeast Asia is an appealing alternative to investment in China after the lingering disputes over tiny islets in the East China Sea erupted last year, sparking anti-Japan sentiment in China and triggering boycotts by Chinese consumers and travelers.

ASEAN is looking to create a regional community in 2015 with combined economies worth US$2 trillion and a population of 600 million. Japan is the group's biggest source of foreign direct investment after the European Union and almost three times the size of China's.

One month after the landslide election victory of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last December, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began his official overseas visits to ASEAN member nations. He visited Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia in January and is planning another trip to the region. 

"This is in part aimed at avoiding isolation in Asia, as Sino-Japanese ties remain tense," Glaser told Vietweek.

"It may also be intended to strengthen ties with China's neighbors who share Japan's concerns about China's maritime policies," she said.

Other than the East China Sea dispute with Japan, China claims sovereignty over 80 percent of the South China Sea (called East Sea by Vietnam), which has pitted it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines.

The waters, which also have Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia as claimants, are thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place these nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar.

China has also seen the US "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region and its involvement in the dispute as an attempt to drive a wedge between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors.

In a move likely to irk Beijing, US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to raise the East Sea issue at the ASEAN Regional Forum that includes China, the US, Russia and other heavyweights on Tuesday (July 2).

But analysts say Beijing is trying to ease neighbors' concerns about its rise.

In April, Beijing apparently for the first time agreed to start talks on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at easing the tensions in the East Sea with ASEAN claimants on a bilateral basis.

During the recent visit to China of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, Chinese President Xi Jinping took a more conciliatory line, stressing the need for a peaceful resolution to the East Sea dispute and prevent it from "affecting ties."

Highlights of the visit were agreements to set up a hotline to resolve fishing incidents in the contested waters and to expand a 2006 deal on joint exploration for oil in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Under the joint exploration pact, Vietnam Oil and Gas Group and China National Offshore Oil Corp will expand the exploration area to 4,000 square kilometers (2,500 miles) and extend the plan through 2016.

But while analysts consider the expansion of the area under joint exploration in the Gulf of Tonkin a helpful, confidence-building move at the bilateral level, they seek to downplay its significance.

"The key difference is that maritime boundaries have already been agreed in the Gulf," said Euan Graham, a maritime analyst with Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"This is not the case elsewhere in the South China Sea, hence I do not read it as a major breakthrough for the South China Sea [dispute]," he said.

"Vietnam and China's game of cat-and-mouse [in the disputed waters] is likely to continue, despite the efforts of both sides to contain tensions bilaterally."

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