SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to forge stronger ties with Southeast Asian countries, but fulfilling that pledge will require careful political maneuvering as he seeks to end the pacifist policy that has guided Japan since the war and tries to set up a greater security role for it as China continues to assert itself.
Having made the pledge at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the regional security forum that concluded Sunday, experts say Abe may need to strike a delicate balance to become a truly proactive contributor to peace in the Asia-Pacific region.
Stronger ties between Japan and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could benefit the region and position Japan to help counterbalance China, but they are unlikely to be welcomed by the Asian powerhouse, whose relations with Japan remain at their lowest point in years.
In his keynote speech at the security forum, Abe made a veiled criticism of China and argued that Asia must uphold the rule of law. He threw strong support behind Vietnam and the Philippines in their attempts to resolve their own territorial disputes in the South China Sea through peaceful means.
“Taking our alliance with the United States as the foundation and respecting our partnership with ASEAN, Japan will spare no effort to make regional stability, peace, and prosperity into something rock solid,” said Abe, who became the first Japanese prime minister to address the forum.
China immediately accused Japan and the United States of staging “provocative actions” against the country — the latest instance of the two Asian powers trading barbs on the global stage.
Despite repeated calls for dialogue, Abe has not yet held a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who proposed in May that Asia should have a new security structure that excludes the United States.
Abe’s push to remodel Japan’s security architecture, which is bound by the pacifist Constitution, has alarmed China, which suffered from Japan’s wartime brutality. Abe denies that Japan will ever go to war again, even if it decides to remove its long-standing ban on using the right to collective self-defense, but Beijing has rejected his argument.
“What is clear in Abe’s message is that Japan will help ASEAN with capacity-building so the grouping can bolster its own defenses, given that ASEAN countries could be the weak link if we are to create an Asian network to counter China,” said Narushige Michishita, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
“Abe did not mention this because the issue is still controversial in Japan, but it’s becoming more obvious that one reason why Japan is trying to remove the ban on collective self-defense seems to be working more closely with ASEAN,” Michishita added.
Abe has prioritized bolstering the U.S.-Japan security alliance as the security landscape evolves due to China’s maritime forays and North Korea’s missile and nuclear development programs.
Bilateral defense cooperation guidelines that define the roles and responsibilities of the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military are expected to be revised by the end of the year. Tokyo and Washington hope a decision will be made by then on whether Japan should defend allies under armed attack when Japan itself is not.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave his backing during the Shangri-La Dialogue to Abe’s bid to “reorient its collective self-defense posture toward actively helping build a peaceful and resilient regional order.”
Debate has continued to revolve around whether the United States, which does not take positions on sovereignty issues, would defend the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by China.
Within the ASEAN framework, Vietnam and the Philippines have faced off with China in the South China Sea, and experts warn that regional tensions could escalate further.
ASEAN is not a NATO-type military alliance, but a regional bloc whose ties are still weak. Experts say some members are much closer to Beijing than to Tokyo.