By Andrew Chubb.

Between January 10 and 19 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida paid formal bilateral visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia: seven countries in the space of 10 days. The diplomatic blitz illustrates the intersection of the East and South China Sea disputes, and the impetus this has given to Japan’s policy of deepening regional engagement since the early 2000s.

Six of Abe and Kishida’s seven destination countries were ASEAN member states, the exception being Australia, and three of them were parties to the South China Sea disputes. In fact, Taiwan aside, the only South China Sea claimant state Japan’s leaders did not visit was Malaysia, which continues to quietly extract hydrocarbons and develop tourism in the disputed area with little hindrance, thanks to its steadfast determination to avoid antagonizing Beijing.

Abe had actually wanted Washington to be his first destination after taking office, in line with his publicly stated intention to strengthen ties with the US, but Barack Obama was too busy to host a January summit. The hasty arrangement of Abe’s jaunt through Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia — he set out on January 16, only nine days after being told Obama’s schedule was full — might suggest receptiveness to Japan’s advances in major ASEAN capitals.

Not surprisingly, the Philippines and Vietnam were the most openly enthusiastic about the Japanese leaders’ visits. Kishida arrived in Manila on January 9, exactly one month after Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Western media the Philippines would “very much” welcome a rearmed Japan free from pacifist constitutional constraints. This time Del Rosario took the opportunity to denounce the PRC’s South China Sea policy in probably the strongest terms yet seen from a serving minister, telling reporters after the meeting that the China was engaging in “very threatening” behaviour: “We do have this threat and this threat is shared by many countries not just by Japan.”

If the rhetoric sounded highly-strung, it was almost matched by the two countries’ actual actions. Del Rosario said Kishida had brought with him an offer of 10 brand-new patrol boats for the Philippines Coast Guard, later confirmed to be supplied under Japan’s Official Development Aid program. To put that in context, the Philippines Coast Guard only has 15 ships currently in service, plus 5 on order from France, so Japan is single-handedly increasing the PCG’s ship numbers by more than 30%.

The patrol boat deal, which was flagged last year year by Japanese embassy staff in Manila, is reportedly in addition to a separate grant for  two refurbished older ships. Importantly, these would be able to stay at sea for weeks at a time, a capability that would have helped during last year’s Scarborough Shoal incident, when China’s maritime surveillance and fisheries ships outlasted their Filipino counterparts to end up in control of the disputed atoll.

Six days after Kishida and del Rosario’s meeting, Abe’s met with Vietnam’s trinity of leaders in Hanoi — Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and President Truong Tan Sang — and the two sides reaffirmed the “strategic partnership” in place since since 2009. The Vietnamese PM called the visit a milestone and thanked Japan for its ongoing development aid dispensations, according to Xinhua, while Abe said Vietnam and Japan must “play a more active role” in regional peace and security and deepen ties to meet “challenging developments” in the Asia-Pacific.

It has since been reported that the Japanese government will provide training for Vietnamese maritime law enforcement personnel from Japan’s experienced and technologically advanced coast guard, as part of a ¥2.5 billion budget allocation for security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries.

Kishida also managed to discuss the South China Sea issue with Brunei’s foreign minister, reached agreement on a deepened “strategic partnership” with Indonesia, and announced further major economic initiatives in the Philippines. Earlier in the month Japan had sent Finance Minister Taro Aso to Myanmar to announce the cancelling or restructuring of nearly $5 billion of Burma’s debt, and numerous economic development projects.

Abe chose Jakarta as the location for his first major foreign policy speech, although it was never delivered due to Abe rushing home to deal with the Algerian hostage crisis. It was published nonetheless on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Entitled “The Bounty of the Open Seas”, it expounded on Abe’s determination to “expand the horizons of Japanese diplomacy”, support for the US strategic pivot, and intention to strengthen ties with “maritime Asia”. Ten days later, in a low-key exchange, the Commander of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force visited President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at his office in Jakarta.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was reticent on all this, with spokesman Hong Lei offering only “we have noticed relevant reports” when asked [ZH] about Abe’s trip. But Japan’s activities was the subject of a range of media discussion in China. The People’s Daily’s foreign affairs commentator [ZH] struck a concerned tone regarding what it called a “values-diplomacy offensive” by Japan. This was nothing less than “an attempt to drag Southeast Asian countries into the encirclement of China, the commentary noted, but “there is absolutely no market in Southeast Asia for this kind of fantasy.”

A more sanguine Global Times editorial declared: “If Abe’s trip to Southeast Asia is aimed at ‘containing China,’ he can only reduce Japan’s role on the political stage of Asia. The trip will only be a show without substantive content. Maybe Abe’s cabinet is not so stupid.” Writing in the same publication, PLA pundit Dai Xu as usual took the gloomiest view of developments, especially Japan’s cultivation of closer ties with Myanmar, which until 2011 had been a strong ally of the People’s Republic. Japan, Colonel Dai wrote, was engaging in “a vicious economic war which aims to drive out Chinese companies, control Myanmar’s economy, and finally, cut off China’s energy passageway to the Indian Ocean.”

But the effort to build closer economic ties with Southeast Asia was not a shift in strategy for Japan, which has been reducing its relative reliance on China for years; the PRC’s share of Japan’s overall trade shrank from 18.4% in 2000 to 11.2% in 2011. The economic punishment meted out to both Japanese and Philippine businesses during their respective standoffs over the Diaoyu Islands and Scarborough Shoal last year simply provides extra motivation for Japan and the South China Sea claimant states to attempt to diversify their economic links. The PRC’s economic diplomacy has certainly caught the attention of the Vietnamese government, whose top trading partner is China. In November, Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Binh told Bloomberg, “Economic force should not be applied in the case of settlement of territorial disputes,” saying he had “observed” the Diaoyu Islands issue and its impact on Sino-Japanese trade relations.

While China’s political and economic leverage in Southeast Asia has become a subject of concern for some commentators on regional politics, the apparent success of Kishida and Abe’s diplomatic overtures was a timely reminder of Japan’s own importance to ASEAN countries. While China was ASEAN’s number one trading partner with 11.7% of the bloc’s total trade in 2011, Japan was just 0.3% behind with 11.4%, according to official statistics. Japan remains Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines’ top trading partner, Vietnam’s leading foreign investor, and a major source of cheap capital via its Official Development Aid program.

Japan also has the fifth-largest defense budget in the world, despite its “pacifist” constitution, and that strategic heft is looking increasingly valuable to China’s co-claimants in the South China Sea. Japan, for its part, is seeking to spread its strategic burden through direct assistance to China’s principal rivals there, Vietnam and the Philippines. This trend looks set to increase over the coming years as Japan re-enters the weapons export industry.

In his “Democratic Security Diamond” article published on December 27, the day after he took office, Abe explicitly warned of the South China Sea becoming “Lake Beijing”, and argued that Japan’s continued resistance to China’s pressure over the East China Sea’s disputed islands was crucial to preventing this possibility. The Japanese government’s recent actions show how it also views Southeast Asian claimants’ continued resistance to Chinese pressure over the disputed South China Sea islands as crucial to Japan’s own security.

Andrew Chubb is a PhD Candidate at the University of Western Australia and owner of the excellent blog, South Sea Conversations. Follow him on Twitter @zhubochubo

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