Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida review the troops before working on their new defense agreement. Photo: Facebook

Japan signed a military agreement with Thailand on May 2, marking the latest move in Tokyo’s efforts to step up its security footprint in Southeast Asia amid rising regional tensions and competition with China. 

Both national leaders underscored the importance of the agreement, which was announced in Bangkok. “The signing of our defense equipment and technology transfer agreement is a major step forward in expanding bilateral defense cooperation,” said Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a joint news statement.

He said that Japan and Thailand would also decide on the specific equipment to transfer. 

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha voiced similar views, stating “this will help improve national defense and support investment from Japan in this activity which is an important goal for Thailand.”

Prayut said that both sides agreed on the need to elevate bilateral relations to the level of comprehensive strategic partners. 

Neither leader, however, discussed any specific details of the newly-signed agreement. However, in 2016 Japan sought to win a contract to supply Thailand with an air defense radar system. 

They also stressed common concerns in a thinly veiled statement aimed at China, Russia and North Korea. “Prime Minister Prayut and I agreed that we will never tolerate any infringement of sovereignty and territorial integrity in any region, any attempts to change the status quo by force, and we are opposed to the threat by or use of weapons of mass destruction,” Kishida said.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha applaud their new defense agreement. Photo: Handout

Thailand’s military is one of the largest and best-equipped in Southeast Asia. It also has a long history of working with the United States as one of Washington’s oldest partners in the region and a major non-Nato ally.

The Thai government has expressed an interest in buying up to eight F-35 fighter jets from the US, although the sale of these stealthy fighters is still pending US approval.

Japan recently concluded similar defense agreements with the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

In April, Japan and the Philippines agreed to work on a treaty to facilitate joint exercises and reciprocal visits of their forces in response to China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea. The treaty was struck in Tokyo during a meeting of both countries’ defense ministers.

The Reciprocal Access Agreement will ease weapons transfers and supplies for joint training and disaster relief operations. Both sides also considered a supply-sharing pact for their forces. 

In September last year, Japan and Vietnam signed an agreement enabling sales of Japanese-made defense items and equipment to Hanoi. As with the Philippines, Vietnam is involved in escalating territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

In view of this agreement, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Japan would speed up talks to sell Japanese Self-Defense Force vessels, which he said would contribute to Japan’s economy by strengthening the country’s defense-related industrial base.

Vietnam is also seeking to diversify its suppliers of military equipment, as it is heavily reliant on Russia via ties going back to the Cold War. 

Japan and Indonesia also signed a similar agreement in March last year. Echoing Japan’s agreement with Thailand, Japan’s agreement with Indonesia aims to facilitate sales of defense equipment and technology, in view of China’s increasing assertiveness around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

Potential joint projects and procurements under the agreement include Japan’s 30FFM Mogami-class frigate, which Indonesia plans to operate, and Indonesia-Japan collaboration over the latter’s F-X stealth fighter.

In September 2018, Japan and Malaysia signed a similar agreement to facilitate military equipment sales, technology transfers and other forms of knowledge-sharing and capacity-building.

The 2018 agreement builds on the previous 2015 Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries, in which discussions for the transfer of defense equipment and technology were initiated. 

Japanese navy ship flying flag. Photo: iStock
A Japanese navy ship flying its flag. Photo: iStock

Japan’s military equipment sales and diplomatic outreach to Southeast Asia come at a time of increasing regional volatility in the Pacific, with China, Russia and North Korea conducting activities that threaten Japan’s security.

On Monday, a Chinese carrier battle group sailed between islands in Japan’s southern Okinawa chain. The ships, which included several destroyers and the aircraft carrier Liaoning, passed between the main island of Okinawa and Miyakojima, with the Liaoning conducting helicopter take-off and landing exercises.

No incursion of Japanese territorial waters was reported during the controversial passage. 

Russia has also withdrawn from peace talks and joint economic projects related to their longstanding disputes in the Kuril Islands, in response to Japan’s imposition of sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry cited “openly unfriendly positions and attempts to damage the interests of our country” as the basis for discontinuing peace talks.

In response, Kishida said Japan’s sanctions are a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that Russia’s attempts to push back on Japan-Russia relations are “extremely unfair and completely unacceptable.”

North Korea unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) reportedly capable of hitting the US mainland during the 90th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army on April 25.

If North Korea’s new SLBM is indeed capable of hitting the US mainland, that would break the logic of extended deterrence afforded by the US-Japan alliance, which has been the cornerstone of Japan’s strategic security since the end of World War II. 

Japan also considers itself a potential target of North Korean missile attacks, considering the huge US military presence in its territories. 

A screengrab taken from a KCNA broadcast on October 10, 2020, shows what appears to be a new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile during a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP

These combined threats from China, Russia and North Korea may have prompted Japan to intensify its security engagements with Southeast Asia to balance against China and build its domestic defense industry through military equipment sales agreements.

This may hint at Japan’s relaxation of its longstanding pacifist position and re-interpretation of the controversial Article 5 of its post-World War II Peace Constitution in line with these emerging security threats. 

However, Japan’s alliance with the US may become a hindrance, rather than an enabler, for Japan’s planned arms sales to Southeast Asia. Its alliance with the US is the foundation of its strategic security and at the same time a restraint from acting rashly and impulsively against South Korea or China, in view of their longstanding historical and territorial disputes.

In view of this, Japan may be looking for ways to act independently but still within the framework and restraints of its critical alliance with the US. 

The same logic of restraint may apply to Japan in Southeast Asia, as the US would not want to be drawn into a South China Sea conflict with China by regional states enabled and emboldened by Japanese arms exports.

It is plausible that the US would rather do the heavy lifting in the South China Sea by itself, instead of trusting unpredictable Southeast Asian partners using Japanese-made equipment to push back against China’s territorial claims. 

Japan’s defense material engagements with Southeast Asia may mainly consist of non-combat and support capacity-building, such as improving its partners’ maritime domain awareness, building cybersecurity capabilities, intelligence-sharing, the transfer of dual-use skills such as drone and satellite design and technical assistance for naval shipbuilding. 

Shawn W. Crispin contributed reporting and editing from Bangkok