Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, gestures during a news conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Oct. 1, 2013. Photographer: Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, beset by festering ties with China that have barred a bilateral summit since he took office, is overseeing an unprecedented expansion in ties with Southeast Asia as a counterbalance.
Abe, who heads to Indonesia next week for a gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders, has already visited Southeast Asia three times since taking office in December. His administration is building on Japan's economic links with the region by developing security relationships, offering coast-guard vessels to the Philippines, conducting counter-terrorism exercises with Indonesia and considering the provision of ships for Vietnam.
The broadening relationship comes two generations after Abe's grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, reopened ties with the region following the turmoil of World War II, when Japanese forces caused millions of deaths across the continent. The initiative provides China with an incentive to dial back its aggression in pressing maritime-jurisdiction claims in the region.
"Japan's power is being eclipsed by China's and it needs friends and allies beyond just the U.S.," said Michael Green, who served on the National Security Council and is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The new element with Abe is that he is now prepared to help them on the defense side" in Southeast Asia, rather than focus just on economic ties.
Abe's efforts to broaden the interpretation of Japan's constitution -- which bans an official military and has until now been regarded as barring defense of an ally -- raise the possibility of further security links with Southeast Asia. Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is discussing the adoption of so-called collective defense, though no deadline has been set for a decision.
"If we say we can't expand our military, we can't carry out collective self-defense and will only act behind the scenes, then we can't gain the respect of other Asian countries or have a proper relationship with them," said LDP lawmaker Hiroshi Imazu, a former deputy defense chief who serves on the parliamentary security committee.
"We caused trouble for them in the war, but now we are saying we will make the international contributions appropriate for a major economy."
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leaders' meeting in Bali next week gives Abe the chance to meet his counterparts from across Southeast Asia. He pledged in July to help provide 10 coast guard vessels to the Philippines, one of the countries at odds with China over waters in the South China Sea rich with oil, gas and fish. Japan is discussing a similar arrangement with Vietnam, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters during a visit to Hanoi in mid September.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin has said he'd be happy to see Japanese involvement in Philippine military bases and last December Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Financial Times the Philippines would "welcome" a rearmed Japan as a "significant balancing factor" in the region.
"I think it is very helpful for the Japanese to be out," Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Seoul on Oct. 1. "They are in many ways a great power. They're a very credible military defense capability. They understand the region through all aspects of economics and culture", he added. Japan's Foreign Ministry held its first-ever seminar on building marine security last month, involving Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar, as well as the Philippines and Malaysia.
Japanese Marine Self-Defense Forces ships paid their first ever visit to Myanmar this week. Indonesia has agreed to increased military cooperation, state news agency Antara reported on Feb. 2, and Japan sent maritime personnel to give the Indonesian Navy a seminar on marine meteorology in February.
The moves by Japan have drawn concern in Beijing. Abe's policies amount to a "plot to contain China," the official Xinhua news agency said in June.
"It is in our interest to get allies lined up against China," said Clarita Carlos, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, who has studied Philippine politics for 50 years. "The enemy of your enemy is your friend."
Code of conduct
The Philippines, whose defense budget was about $3 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, compared with China's $166 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, asked the United Nations in January to rule on its dispute with China. Beijing took effective control of the Scarborough Shoal, a fertile fishing ground, a year after a standoff between ships from the two countries.
China has agreed to talks on developing a code of conduct for ships operating in the South China Sea, while making advances to Cambodia and Vietnam. Premier Li Keqiang called for better ties during a meeting with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on Sept. 2, Xinhua reported. President Xi Jinping is visiting Indonesia and Malaysia this week.
That's a shift from last year when the Association of South East Asian Nations failed to release a final communique from their summit for the first time, after a split over the maritime conflicts with China.
In some places Japan is breaking new ground. Onodera told reporters on Sept. 17 he was the first non-Vietnamese defense official to see military areas of the Cam Ranh naval base during his visit earlier in the month. Vietnam took part in a submarine rescue training exercise in Japan at the end of September, he said. Vietnam's relations with China have at times been strained by the countries' competing claims to the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands and the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands.
"In a sense, Japan and Vietnam are in the same situation, one in the East China Sea and one in the South China Sea," Onodera said on Sept. 17.
Japan is mired in its own dispute with China after it bought three uninhabited islets also claimed by China in the East China Sea last year, triggering violent demonstrations and damaging trade ties between Asia's two largest economies. Since then, Chinese and Japanese patrol boats and aircraft have tailed one another around the contested area.
"The strategy is if China were to place pressure on Japan in the East China Sea, Japan can try to defuse it by putting pressure on China in the South China Sea, by backing up Vietnam and the Philippines," said Dr Lam Peng Er of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, who has written a book about Japan's ties with the region.
China last month denied starting to build a structure on the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines protested in June what it called the "massive presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships" around territory it claims. In March China fired on a Vietnamese fishing vessel, sparking a protest from the government, and it has used patrol ships to disrupt hydrocarbon surveys by the Philippines and Vietnam.
The rocky relationship with China is reflected in a redirection of Japanese funds. Direct investment in Asean countries roughly quadrupled in the first six months of this year to 998.6 billion yen ($10.2 billion), more than twice the 470.1 billion yen that went to China. Japan's big banks such as Mitsubishi UFJ are seeking new markets by investing in Vietnamese counterparts, while Japan agreed in May to give Myanmar 51 billion yen in development loans and about 2 billion yen in grants.
Japan's image in Southeast Asia is more favorable than in China. A Pew survey including about 9,400 people in eight Asia-Pacific countries in March and April found Japan was viewed positively by about 80 percent of respondents in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, compared with only 4 percent in China.
Seventy-eight percent of respondents to the survey in China said Japan had not sufficiently apologized for its war actions, compared with 47 percent in the Philippines.
"There's a lot to be gained for the Japanese in doing this kind of thing," said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University in California. "I think Abe is very happy to go around Southeast Asia in a very visible way."
Still, "no Japanese leader thinks that you could persist over an extended period of time with deteriorating or frozen relations with your two principal neighbors in Northeast Asia," said Sneider, referring to China and South Korea. "I think Abe is almost desperate for a meeting" with his Chinese counterpart.