Once he winds up his planned two-day trip to Laos and Cambodia from Saturday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have visited all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in less than a year since taking office in December.
It’s a lightning pace compared to his predecessors, according to a Foreign Ministry official. Starting with Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia in January, Abe has traveled to 23 countries in 10 months, far more than any other prime minister during his tenure in the past decade.
The rise of China is responsible for Abe’s frequent globe-trotting, pundits say. Checking in with ASEAN member countries is seen as a bid to deepen bonds to counter China’s growing clout in the Asia-Pacific region.
The government hopes to bolster ties with countries that share “common values of democracy, freedom and basic human rights,” to counter China’s growing military and economic power, they said. And ASEAN countries are the vital part of Japan’s diplomatic strategy to keep China in check.
“There is no doubt that (Abe) is extremely conscious of China, even though he doesn’t declare it. It’s obvious to everyone, including China,” said Yosihide Soeya, professor of East Asian studies at Keio University. “But when it comes to how much impact (Abe’s frequent overseas visits) have had on Japan-China diplomacy, it’s a different story.”
While making the rounds of ASEAN countries, stressing the importance of applying the rule of law to resolve territorial disputes, Abe has yet to hold a summit with China’s leaders.
Japan-China ties soured after Tokyo in September last year effectively nationalized the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Ever since, China has kept up patrols around the islets. In response, Japan has sought better security ties with Vietnam and the Philippines, countries that are also involved in sovereignty disputes with Beijing over isles in the South China Sea.
In July, Abe promised to provide Manila with 10 coast guard patrol boats through a yen loan.
While Abe’s frequent trips have succeeded in raising Japan’s profile abroad, Tokyo has so far failed to take the ties to the next level, Soeya said.
“By offering support or cooperation, mainly economic, Japan has strengthened ties with those countries. But the important thing is what Japan will build on that foundation, and Japan has yet to reach that stage,” he said.
Rather than attempt to counter China, as Abe’s recent moves suggest, the government had better cooperate with ASEAN countries to figure out ways to coexist with it, Soeya said.
“No (ASEAN) country will join Japan (to counter China). . . . The last thing they want to do is to make China angry,” Soeya said.
As trade increases by the year, China is also becoming an ever more important economic partner for ASEAN countries, experts said.
“We need to form closer ties with the region economically, politically, and hopefully in security areas as well. But (its aim should not be to) counter China. It is impossible. What we can do is develop bonds in ‘soft’ areas,” he said.
Toshikazu Inoue, professor of international relations at Gakushuin University, pointed out Southeast Asia’s expanding economies are also important for revitalizing Japan’s economy.
“When relations with China and South Korea have worsened this far, Southeast Asian countries are important for Japan as a means of hedging (economic) risks,” Inoue said.
Tokyo indeed has shown a readiness to forge closer economic ties with the region, pushing sales of infrastructure such as railways as well as easing visa requirements for Southeast Asians to lure more travelers to Japan.