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Solid ASEAN ties key to Abe strategy

But some states nervous about de facto strategy to contain China

by Daisuke Yamamoto

Kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visits to Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines last week underscores his government’s eagerness to forge closer ties with the fast-growing Southeast Asia region as part of efforts to revive Japan’s economy.

Deepening cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is also strategically important for Japan to keep in check China, which has become increasingly assertive in the East China and South China seas, at a time when Japan’s ties with China remain fragile.

But some ASEAN countries seem concerned, or even nervous, about a strategy that effectively amounts to an attempt to contain China, requiring the Abe government to tread carefully in its approach to the regional bloc, some of whose members maintain closer ties with China than others.

“As a result of Upper House election, my government was able to obtain the trust and confidence of the Japanese people for its policies, and against this backdrop, I intend to further proceed with strategic diplomacy, which would contribute to regional and global peace and prosperity going forward,” Abe said after meeting with the leaders of Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines during a three-day trip through Saturday.

“I intend to attach particular importance to our relationship with ASEAN,” he said.

The remarks underscore Abe’s confidence in running his administration after the ruling camp led by his Liberal Democratic Party won a comfortable majority in the House of Councilors in the July 21 election, providing him with much-needed political stability.

“It’s certainly true that with the ending of the divided Diet, the Abe government has become stable and as a result can do a lot of things in its dealings with foreign countries,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Fresh from the electoral victory, Abe embarked on last week’s three-nation tour, which was his third trip to Southeast Asia since retaking the prime ministership in late December.

Of the 10 ASEAN member states, he has already visited seven, having traveled to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia in January and Myanmar in May. His January trip was his first abroad after he was elected prime minister.

The importance attached by the Abe government to Southeast Asia in helping revitalize the Japanese economy was evident in his visit to Malaysia and Singapore, which took place as Japan formally but belatedly joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations during a session in Malaysia.

Abe and the leaders of Malaysia and Singapore, both already involved in the multilateral talks, confirmed plans to closely coordinate their moves in concluding the negotiations aimed at creating one of the world’s largest trading blocs.

And by saying he wishes to incorporate Asia’s vitality into the efforts to revive the Japanese economy, Abe expressed hope to incorporate ASEAN’s economic prospects into his “Abenomics” policy — a combination of monetary and fiscal policies and structural reforms.

As China flexes its muscles to achieve its territorial designs and interests in direct competition with Japan and some ASEAN countries, Abe also sought to deepen cooperation with ASEAN in maritime security.

“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,” Abe said during the 33rd Singapore Lecture in the city state Friday.

“What guides Asia was not, is not, or will not be coercive force,” he added in a stark reminder of the daily challenges Japan faces from China over its administrative control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are called the Diaoyu in China.

Yet while Japan is eager to strengthen economic and security ties with ASEAN, some ASEAN countries appear apprehensive about being unnecessarily drawn into the growing geostrategic rivalry between Japan and China.

A diplomatic source in Singapore said it would not be good for ASEAN to be cast as being part of an attempt to contain China, adding that it would gain nothing from opposing China, ASEAN’s largest trading partner.

One major exception would be the Philippines, whose competition with China has intensified due to their overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. In talks with Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Saturday, Abe said Tokyo will provide Manila with 10 patrol ships for the Philippine coast guard.

But generally speaking, ASEAN leaders have pinned high hopes on Japan’s role in the economic and development area, exemplified by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Abe’s July 25 agreement to cooperate in making use of Japanese technology in high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects in the Southeast Asian country.

As part of his efforts to strengthen Japan-ASEAN ties before a special commemorative Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo in mid-December, Abe hopes to visit Brunei in October on the occasion of ASEAN-related summits scheduled there, another senior ministry official said.