Japan's Abe turns to Southeast Asia to counter China

TOKYO/JAKARTA Tue Jan 15, 2013 4:42pm EST

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo January 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

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TOKYO/JAKARTA (Reuters) - The last time he was prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe's inaugural foreign trip was to China. In the job again 7 years later and relations with Beijing now chilly, Abe is turning first this time to the rising economic stars of Southeast Asia.

A hawkish Abe wants them to help counterbalance the growing economic and military might of China at a time when Japan needs new sources of growth for its languishing economy and is debating whether to make its own military more muscular.

But experts warn he will have to tread carefully during his visit to Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam this week to avoid provoking Bejing by appearing to "contain" China.

Beijing is also scouring the region in search of new investment and trade opportunities and sources of raw materials. But it is also clashing with countries in the region in territorial rows in the South China Sea, as well as with Japan over tiny isles in the East China Sea.

Moreover, Abe may find his hosts keen to avoid upsetting China, now their major economic partner as well.

"The Japanese government is trying to solidify its relations with other countries in the region and strengthen its bargaining power before talking to China," said Narushige Michishita, an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute.

Abe had hoped to go first to Washington this time after his Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) big win at the polls last month, in order to bolster the security alliance with his country's main ally. But because U.S. President Barack Obama was too busy, he will start with members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Japanese firms are already eyeing Southeast Asia as an alternative to investment in China after a long-simmering feud with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea flared up last year, sparking protests in China and hurting trade.

Abe has made clear that ASEAN's planned integration in 2015, creating a bloc with combined economies worth $2 trillion and a population of 600 million, is a significant lure for a Japanese economy that has been trapped in deflation for decades and whose population is ageing fast and shrinking.

He also says, however, that he wants to go beyond mere economic ties and expand relations in the security field. He is expected to give a policy speech in Jakarta.


In an echo of the push for a broader Asian "arc of freedom and prosperity" that underpinned Abe's foreign policy during his first term in office - which ended when he quit abruptly - the Japanese leader is also likely to refer to his desire for deeper ties with countries that share democratic and other values.

"Japan's path since the end of World War Two has been to firmly protect democracy and basic human rights and stress the rule of law," Abe told NHK public TV on Sunday. "I want to emphasize the importance of strengthening ties with countries that share such values."

Abe has said repeatedly that he wants to improve ties with Beijing despite his tough stand over the islands dispute. But some warn his rhetoric could been seen as trying to box in China, provoking Beijing and worrying Southeast Asian countries whose economies are increasingly linked to China's.

"What is the point of making an enemy of China?," said Hitoshi Tanaka, a former diplomat who is now chairman of the Institute for International Strategy in Tokyo. "It is not smart diplomacy in my view and the last thing the nations named as targets of 'values diplomacy' would welcome."


Abe will need to reassure his hosts that he will not let the islands row with China get out of hand despite his hawkish security stance and his desire to revise Japan's take on its wartime history with a less apologetic tone.

"Prime Minister Abe might be seen as revisionist but this should not influence the dispute as all countries in the region would rather focus on economic development than see this conflict deteriorate," said Damrong Kraikuan, director-general of the Thai foreign ministry's East Asia Affairs Department.

"But the South China Sea will not be the highlight of his visit to Bangkok," he added. "Thailand will take note of what Japan has to say and we will listen, but we have to take other countries into consideration to make progress."

Japan's remains a huge economic influence in ASEAN. It is the group's biggest source of foreign direct investment, after the European Union and almost three times the size of China's.

That is a position Japan wants to keep in what has become one of the world's fastest growing regions.

"Japan is concerned about losing out to China in trade and investment," said Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank's Office for Regional Economic Integration. "(The visit) sends an important message."

In Vietnam, Japan pledged investments of $4.9 billion in the first 10 months of last year, nearly double the whole of 2011. In Thailand, from January-September, foreign investment almost tripled to around $8.1 billion.

In the group's biggest economy, Indonesia, net direct investment last year looked to be heading for a record amount.

And Japan was ASEAN's second biggest trading partner in 2011, just behind China, according to the group's figures.

"The visit comes at a very important time ... Despite the serious (global) economic situation, Japan keeps helping Indonesia. And Indonesia is a market and source of raw material to Japan," said Arbi Sanit, a political analyst at the University of Indonesia.

"It is a more compassionate relationship, not simply one of economic rationale," he said.

Abe's young government has already been pushing hard to improve relations in the region. He sent his foreign minister last week to Brunei, Singapore, Australia and the Philippines. Manila, for one, has welcomed signs of Japan's willingness to play a bigger regional security role.

Finance Minister Taro Aso went to Myanmar early this month as part of Japan's push to tap the potential of the country's opening up to the outside world.

Nevertheless, Abe will have to tread carefully on the topic of Japan's wartime aggression, which remains a sensitive issue.

His government has said it would stick by a landmark 1995 apology for Japan's wartime aggression.

But Abe also wants to issue a statement of his own and has expressed interest in revisiting a 1993 government statement apologizing for military involvement in kidnapping Asian women to work in wartime military brothels.

"Everyone knows that if the new government were to change the basic line then Japan will be isolated in East Asia because China, Korea and even Southeast Asia will make lots of issues out of a change in interpretation (of the past)," Tanaka said.

(Additional reporting by Amy Lefevre in Bangkok, Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo and Rieka Rahadiana in Jakarta; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Comments (5)
herestp wrote:
Why is it Abe dare not visit Singapore and Malaysia where there was much WWII atrocities? When he go to Thailand, dare he make a speech at River Kwai? wiki/Kanchanaburi
Wikipedia: After Thailand agreed to let Japanese troops pass through the country, the Japanese then occupied Thailand and later Thailand declared war on the Allies. Great friend!
Even though the new generation have no sense of WWII the Japanese should not be trusted in whatever they do. esp the hawkish Abe still visiting the Class A war criminals shrined in Yasukuni Shrine. They even twist Administer Diaoyu Island to become Sovereign claim over the islands. Thief!

Jan 15, 2013 8:05pm EST  --  Report as abuse
MikeBarnett wrote:
The Japanese initiative is unlikely to gain much because China is ASEAN’s biggest trade partner, and that trade can grow faster than trade with Japan. Japan lacks the capacity to purchase ASEAN’s goods and resources on China’s scale because China runs a negative trade balance with ASEAN, and Japan cannot afford the purchases and the annual growth of Chinese purchases. Japan’s GDP growth was 0.8% in 2012 compared to nearly 8% for China, a difference of about 10 to 1, and future projections do not close the gap in growth rates, so China will likely remain ahead of Japan for many years into the future.

Since the economy pays for the war machine and the military’s technological tools, Japan will not have the armed forces in the future to challenge China. Then, there is the problem of World War II and Japan’s treatment of conquered subjects. Next, there is the issue of democracy when most members of ASEAN are not democratic. Vietnam and Laos are communist countries; Laos is an ally of China on most issues, and Vietnam accepts Chinese investments. My partners and I have a food processing investment in Vietnam although our main offices are in China. Singapore, Cambodia, and Myanmar are not democratic; the first two benefit too much from trade that goes to China; and the last one often needs China’s development assistance.

Finally, there are the natural disasters. Every year the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea receive punishing typhoons and need economic recovery that increasingly comes from China and not the increasingly bankrupt US. Indonesia has volcanoes and earthquakes that China has developed escort carriers with helicopters and landing craft to use for recovery efforts in the nation of numerous islands. Australia suffered flooding that was followed by a typhoon in Queensland in 2011. The US had words, but China had infrastructure reconstruction programs in exchange for the purchase of Australian minerals, so the land down under was rebuilt, and the country that gave the help became a major customer. US Marines at Darwin reported observing Chinese and Australian joint naval maneuvers during the “US” Asian Pivot.

Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and the US (fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, and budget stalemate) combined do not have the available resources to reject China’s aid in the annual natural disasters that hit the first three countries. After the earthquake, tsunami, and typhoons of 2011, China, Japan, and South Korea set up a Trilateral Cooperation Office in Seoul, ROK, to coordinate development projects for the three countries.

The conclusion is that the brave, defiant words of the quiet winter months may not continue to be observed when the natural disasters occur during the spring, summer, and autumn. The US fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, and political stalemate have made the US an unreliable partner while China continues to rack up huge trade surpluses and GDP growth rates with which to pay for reconstruction projects.

Jan 15, 2013 8:43pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Free_Pacific wrote:
It will take another 10 years to build a robust supply chain without China being a critical component. At least the work is starting.

Small question MikeBarnett (Really nice delivery of the challenges Japan and many of us face moving away from the aggressive expansionist state of China). Following AID deliveries for many of these seasonal issues (China has many recurring event of similiar nature), who is it really that delivers the most relief? Example being the recent Typhoon Philippines, China seems to be the country that gives the least (Because it’s hard to have the face to give aid, when robbing somone of their soil at the same time). They are well known for offering loans but little in aid. Unless the country is a Chinese puppet, aid from China is often abysmal. This is frequently in the 10′s of thousands, where other countries give millions. Look at Cambodia…. for all the help China ‘gives’ them, they now owe about two thirds of their gdp to China… this is not aid… this is loans with a purpose. Ask the africans who swap oil for soft loans they can only spend on Chinese companies, who often do poor work.

When it comes to international aid in general, we can all thank Japan for being one of the worlds largets donors and who does not place the same enslaving strings on that aid. About the only thing they want is to be allowed to exterminate all whales (As abominal as it is).

Abe, get your people to stop killing Whales and you will be able to push your agenda even further south, where arms are made more welcoming by the menace that lives near you in the north.

Jan 15, 2013 9:37pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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