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Southeast Asian nations seek stronger regional role for Japan amid vacuum posed by Trump

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo

With President Donald Trump pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and abandoning predecessor Barack Obama’s policy of a strategic rebalance, or “pivot,” to Asia, Southeast Asian scholars have urged Japan to play a greater role in regional security.

They suggest that Japan, for example, should provide more patrol vessels to the Philippines, Vietnam and other coastal states around the South China Sea to boost surveillance and law-enforcement capabilities at a time when China is becoming increasingly assertive about its territorial claims in the contested waterway.

“Japan’s role is very important” because Trump’s comprehensive Asia policy is not yet in sight and Beijing is advancing militarization of its outposts in disputed areas in the South China Sea, said Tran Truong Thuy, a deputy director of the Bien Dong Maritime Institute at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

“Japan should provide more patrol ships to Southeast Asian countries and help enhance their maritime domain awareness,” Thuy said.

Aries Arugay, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, also asked Japan to increase its supply of coast guard equipment to Southeast Asian states and strengthen military exchanges with the Self-Defense Forces.

During a meeting between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Sunday in Manila, Foreign Minister Taro Kono stressed that the South China Sea needs to be demilitarized and said talks between the 10-nation group and China aimed at defusing tensions in the waters should be conducted based on international law and on condition that non-militarization and self-restraint be ensured.

In the waters, China has overlapping territorial claims with four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — in addition to Taiwan. Beijing refuses to comply with last year’s ruling by an international tribunal that invalidated its claims in almost the entire area.

Arugay and Thuy stressed that countries in the region, including the United States and Japan, must keep sending a clear message to China that they will never overlook any unilateral action that will undermine the rule of law and force a shift in the status quo of the Asia-Pacific region.

“This is important not only for Vietnam and other claimants in the South China Sea, but for Japan,” Thuy said. “The stability, freedom of navigation and respecting of international law here are matters concerning Japan’s interests because Japan is embroiled in a row with China in the East China Sea.”

Chinese government vessels have repeatedly intruded into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands, a group of islets in the East China Sea that have long been administered by Japan but more recently been claimed by Beijing and Taiwan. China has also been continuing unilateral resource development in Japan’s exclusive economic zone and on continental shelves in areas pending delimitation.

Japanese officials say Northeast Asian economies have a vital interest in maintaining the rules-based order in the South China Sea, given that more than 80 percent of the crude oil shipments bound for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan travel through the waterway.

Further, the U.S. Defense Department has expressed caution regarding China’s recent attempts to strengthen its de facto control over the Spratly and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea.

According to a Pentagon report released in June, China “reached milestones” by landing civilian aircraft on its airfields on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs — the three largest outposts of the seven Chinese-occupied features in the Spratly Islands — for the first time last year, as well as landing a military transport aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef to evacuate injured personnel.

“In the Paracel Islands, which are disputed with Vietnam and Taiwan, China last year for the first time deployed CSA-9 surface-to-air missiles and maintained a regiment of J-11B fighters at Woody Island,” the report said.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it is “only a matter of time” before China begins to land military jets and operate military ships out of those Spratly outposts.

“And I do not rule out that we eventually will see a South China Sea air defense identification zone,” similar to the zone Beijing unilaterally declared in 2013 in the East China Sea although it overlaps Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands, Glaser said.

But citing Trump’s apparently higher attention to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, Arugay argued that under the Trump administration, the South China Sea dispute no longer defines the U.S. security interest in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Mr. Obama’s pivot to Asia, of which (the China-excluding) TPP was a major pillar, is all about balancing China,” he said. “What is happening under Mr. Trump is that U.S. Asia policy will no longer be about balancing power, but addressing an existential threat like North Korea, which now has ICBM technology, and the rising threat of terrorism in the region.”

Last month, North Korea test-launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles, the second of which was, for the first time, apparently capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. This showed major progress in its missile technology, which could eventually deliver nuclear weapons to Washington or New York.

Glaser urged the Trump administration to appreciate that although “the pivot has been declared dead and there is as yet no real strategy to replace it, there’s a lot of demand for and desire for the United States to play a very strong, very involved role and be engaged.”

“Military presence is essential, but it is not sufficient to strengthen both deterrence and reassurance,” she said. “We need an economic strategy — the U.S. withdrawal from TPP really has undermined regional confidence in the United States.”