Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to Tokyo on July 27 after visiting Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. This was his third visit to Southeast Asia since he returned to power in December. Clearly he is placing great importance on Japan’s ties with the region.
Of the three countries he visited this time, Malaysia and the Philippines have territorial disputes with China. There is a strong possibility that China feels that Japan is trying to encircle it diplomatically.
Mr. Abe should strive to avoid alienating China and instead concentrate his efforts on reducing bilateral tensions that have arisen from the sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Japan traditionally has had strong economic ties with Southeast Asian countries and it is important to deepen ties with them. But if such efforts are made in a manner that provokes China, they will run counter to Japan’s national interests.
Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki visited China on Monday and Tuesday, but there are no signs that the relationship between Japan and China will improve anytime soon. Mr. Abe needs to intensify efforts to build better ties with China to strike a balance with his efforts in Southeast Asia.
When he visited Indonesia in January after visiting Vietnam and Thailand, Mr. Abe announced a five-point principle for Japan’s diplomacy toward Southeast Asia. He said that he will make efforts with Southeast Asian countries to spread universal values such as liberal democracy and basic human rights.
He also stressed the importance of protecting a free and open ocean that is ruled not by force but by law.
Few countries would openly dispute the importance of promoting freedom, basic human rights and the rule of law. But China is very sensitive about such issues. Therefore, Mr. Abe should carefully consider how China reacts when he emphasizes these values. This is especially important considering the poor state of bilateral relations at present.
The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s organ, reacted by saying that Mr. Abe is trying to drag Southeast Asian countries into a net encircling China. It added that Mr. Abe has no qualifications to discuss universal values because Japan refuses to deeply consider the “criminal acts” arising from its past aggression.
Given the importance of good ties with China, one of Japan’s most important economic partners, Mr. Abe should consider whether his emphasis on universal values in pushing diplomacy really contributes to enhancing Japan’s national interests.