Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Vietnamese President and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong hold a meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, on October 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

In a sign of Southeast Asia’s growing strategic importance, Japan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga chose the region as his first foreign destination. This marked the second time in the past decade that a newly-elected Japanese leader chose Southeast Asia as his maiden destination. 

Back in 2013, Suga’s longtime mentor and former boss, Shinzo Abe, visited three key Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members of Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, while dispatching senior officials to other regional states simultaneously. 

At the heart of Japan’s charm offensive in the region is its growing concerns over China as well as extensive trade and investment interests among Southeast Asia’s booming economies. 

During his back-to-back visits to Vietnam – ASEAN’s current chairman – and Indonesia, the region’s biggest power, Suga took a shot at China’s actions, which he described as “contrary to the rule of law,” and he reiterated that “Japan is strongly opposed to any actions that escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

Reassuringly, he also emphasized the centrality of ASEAN in preserving a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” while striking new defense and economic deals with his hosts. 

Perturbed by Japan’s strategic activism, China’s state-backed Global Times published an article which accused Tokyo of “not [being] reconciled to just being an all of the US,” but instead “pursuing to be a great power like the US” in the region. 

Sharpening regional policy

“However Japan interprets its Indo-Pacific vision, it is with a strong military emphasis,” wrote Yang Xiyu, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies. “Boosting cooperation in defense and security with the two Southeast Asian countries is a highlight of Suga’s visit,” he added. 

The Japanese leader’s visit marked not only a continuation of his predecessor’s regional policy, but also its sharpening. Back in 2013, in Abe’s speech, titled “Japan and ASEAN, Always in Tandem,” he spoke in more generic terms vis-à-vis shared concerns with China. 

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (L) and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc shake hands after attending their joint press conference after the summit meeting in Hanoi on October 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

“I am delighted that ASEAN and Japan have gone beyond their economic relations to forge a relationship that takes on responsibility for the security of the region, particularly freedom of navigation on the seas,” said Abe, seeking tighter strategic and defense ties with regional states beyond traditionally robust economic relations.

During his visit to the region this week, Suga set a more strident tone, albeit falling short of directly naming China. The Japanese leader emphasized a shared interest in preserving “rule of law, openness, freedom, transparency and inclusiveness,” and zeroed in on the rising tensions in the South China Sea.

“Unfortunately, in this region, developments contrary to the rule of law and openness upheld by the ASEAN Outlook have been unfolding in the South China Sea. Japan is strongly opposed to any actions that escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” declared Suga.

“Japan has consistently supported the preservation of the rule of law on the seas. I would like to re-emphasize the importance for all parties concerning the South China Sea issues to work toward the peaceful resolution of disputes based on international law instead of resorting to force or coercion,” he added.

Standing side-by-side with his Vietnamese counterpart, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the Japanese leader also announced a new bilateral defense deal, which will facilitate exports of advanced weapons, military technology sharing and tighter defense cooperation in the near future. 

Defense agreements

Since relaxing constitutional restrictions on overseas military cooperation in 2014, Japan has successfully negotiated historic defense agreements with key countries across the Indo-Pacific region, including India and the Philippines, which received radar surveillance systems from Tokyo in August. 

The deal makes Vietnam the country’s 12th defense partner, paving the way for tighter maritime security cooperation in the South China Sea. In recent years, Japan has been at the forefront of developing the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and coast guard capabilities of Southeast Asian countries on the frontline of the regional maritime spats. 

Already a beneficiary of Japanese patrol vessels, Vietnam has agreed to a US$345 million deal to buy six additional coast guard patrol vessels, bolstering its maritime surveillance and defensive capabilities amid rising tensions with China. 

“Vietnam appreciates that Japan, one of the world’s leading powers, is actively contributing its efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region and in the world,” said Vietnam’s prime minister Phuc, welcoming growing defense cooperation with Japan. 

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (R) and Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Bogor on the outskirts of Jakarta. Photo: AFP

In Indonesia, Suga emphasized shared concerns over China’s growing para-military presence in Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea, which overlaps with the southernmost tip of Beijing’s expansive nine-dash line claims.

He pushed for the institutionalization of “two plus two” talks between the two countries’ defense and foreign policy chiefs in order to strengthen strategic and military cooperation against common threats. 

In a sign of deft diplomacy, the Japanese leader doubled down on economic cooperation with regional partners, especially amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, which has hammered recently booming regional economies.

In Vietnam, where Japan is a leading export destination and foreign investor, Suga pushed for the relaxation of travel restrictions to boost trade and investment. In Indonesia, he pledged low-interest loans of $473 million to help the country overcome the ongoing crisis and reinvigorate bilateral economic ties. 

The timing of the visit was also crucial, since only weeks earlier the Japanese leader hosted the high-profile Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the “Quad,” among the major Indo-Pacific powers of Australia, India, Japan and the US.

ASEAN Outlook

In both Hanoi and Jakarta, Suga emphasized the centrality of ASEAN in regional affairs in order to dispel concerns over the potential marginalization of smaller nations with the advent of a more proactive coordination among major powers against China. 

“I firmly believe that we can create a peaceful and prosperous future along with ASEAN with these fundamental values in common,” said Suga. 

“I fully support the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which Indonesia initiated, as it has a lot of fundamental commonalities with Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added, adeptly reassuring his Southeast Asian partners by endorsing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) doctrine, which emphasizes Southeast Asia’s commitment to remain as a primary driver of integration in the Indo-Pacific. 

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo was visibly pleased with his guest, welcoming Japan’s commitment to ASEAN in an era of great power rivalry. 

“The potential for multilateral cooperation is currently being threatened by a tough contest between world powers, and we are asking for Japan’s help in returning things to normal,” declared the Indonesian president.