The special session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that took place in Tokyo on Saturday was designed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Japan’s diplomatic relations with the Southeast Asian countries.
But media attention has been dominated on themes involving one country that is not part of Southeast Asia — China, which has raised diplomatic tension with Japan by setting a new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.
Japan tried to use the ASEAN event to garner support from member countries to put pressure on China. In the end, Tokyo succeeded in having ASEAN countries indirectly criticize China in one of the two main statements over Beijing’s creation of the ADIZ.
But the statement did not specifically name China, only saying that ASEAN and Tokyo “agreed to enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law.”
Experts say the statement is likely to have keep China in check to some extent, as it will draw international attention on its muscle-flexing in both in East and South China seas. But at the same time, the statement highlighted different degree of interests among ASEAN countries, as some have closer economic relationships with China and thus opted not to raise tensions with Beijing, they said.
“Yes, there are big differences in interests among ASEAN countries. Look at the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, for example,” said Takashi Shiraishi, a noted expert on ASEAN affairs and president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
China-Philippines relations have been especially strained over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as Beijing is trying to isolate Manila internationally. Meanwhile Vietnam, too, has a territorial dispute with China in South China Sea but has maintained more cautious approach toward Beijing, Shiraishi pointed out.
Thailand has no border rows with China and has been benefited from China’s buying of excessive rice inventories. Cambodia has maintained very close ties with Beijing as it has been greatly benefited from massive economic assistance from China, according to Shiraishi.
Those subtle but clear difference in distances to China has resulted in the statement that avoided directly criticizing China, Shiraishi said.
“I think the statement will have a certain effect (in keeping China in check), but it won’t instantly change the situation much,” he said. “(A territorial row) is a game that is fought over a long period of time. Abe should have understood that, too.”
Meanwhile, it is true Abe is trying to deepen Japan’s relationship with ASEAN countries to counter China’s growing economic and military presence in the region, Shiraishi said. He also noted that Abe is also strengthening ties with other countries, such as India and Australia, for the same reason.
“It’s a quite natural move for Japan in international politics,” Shiraishi said.
Saturday’s meetings in Tokyo gave Abe another chance to reconfirm Japan’s commitment to ASEAN countries, as he pledged to provide ¥2 trillion in official development assistance to the bloc over the next five years.
Abe’s emphasis on diplomacy with ASEAN was very clear right from his inauguration last December. Abe has visited all 10 member countries in just his first 10 months in office.
Shiraishi argued that the worst policy for Japan would be to split ASEAN by posing something resembling a test of loyalty over critical issues, such territorial disputes in the South China Sea. ASEAN and Tokyo thus chose not to disturb the unity of the bloc by avoiding directly criticizing China, he said.
Bonji Ohara, a China expert and senior research fellow at Tokyo Foundation, largely agreed with Shiraishi. “(The statement) is just mentioning general rules (under international law). I think they did not want to single out China to criticize it,” he said.
Asked about possible reactions from China, Ohara pointed out Chinese media have already shifted their focus of criticism to the reaction of the United States to China’s founding of the ADIZ, and not on Japan’s response.
If China steps up criticism of Japan, it could increase the possibility of a military clash with its neighbor and the United States. Ohara believes the top Chinese leaders are afraid of this scenario and thus have shifted the focus of the domestic media to a somewhat abstract argument against the U.S. instead of direct criticism toward Japan, he said.
At the same time, senior Chinese leaders need to appease hard-liners in domestic politics, in particular those in the air force who are calling for a war with Japan, Ohara said.
Chinese leaders probably are “walking on a tight rope” by trying to be appear tough against the United States and at the same time to please hard-liners at home, he said.