The Asia diplomacy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has started showing signs of falling apart. Less than a year after returning to power in December 2012, he visited all 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the apparent aim of containing and isolating China.

His pretext for doing so was to give diplomatic priority to Asia, but China has continued to escalate its provocative acts such as ramming its vessels against Vietnamese ships in the South China Sea and flying its aircraft dangerously close to Japanese Air Self-Defense Force planes over the East China Sea.

Japan and Southeast Asian countries have complained about and criticized such acts, but have been unable to take effective joint action, partly because of irritation among Southeast Asian countries about the slow pace at which Abe’s promises are being implemented.

In a May 28 session of the Lower House Budget Committee, Abe admitted delays in delivering Japan Coast Guard patrol ships to Vietnam and the Philippines. Tokyo had told Vietnam that it would consider supplying such vessels. To the Philippines, it had formally pledged supplying such ships.

Since Vietnam is anxious to get large vessels, it would settle for fishery patrol ships if Tokyo cannot supply decommissioned Coast Guard ships now, according to a Japanese government official. The reason why the Japan Coast Guard cannot immediately decommission old patrol ships is because its guard duties have greatly increased.

In January last year, when Abe chose Vietnam as the first foreign nation to visit after taking office, Japan’s Coast Guard vessels were operating at full capacity to cope with Chinese ships near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, over which Beijing claims sovereignty as well.

Abe made what has proved to be a grandiose but empty promise of providing Vietnam with some of Japan’s retiring patrol ships, without any knowledge of how many new patrol ships Japan is able to build and how many old ones can be pulled out of service for delivery abroad.

Another stumbling block is the framework in which those ships are to be provided. The Japanese government has sought to make the deal within the framework of its Official Development Assistance (ODA), which prohibits any equipment offered by Japan from being used for military purposes.

In reality, the Vietnam Coast Guard, which would be the recipient of decommissioned Japanese patrol ships, is part of that country’s military organization and would come under the command of the navy in case of a military conflict. It is taking time for Tokyo to reconcile these two factors.

In the course of the Abe administration’s current work on revising the rules governing the ODA programs, it has been suggested that a total ban on the use of ODA-supplied goods for military purposes is not realistic, because activities by the military have lately been expanded to cover peace-keeping operations and disaster relief.

The new rules are expected to be finalized by the end of this year. But they should have been changed before Abe made various promises to Southeast Asian countries.

It has been long pointed out that the Japanese government has been so slow in executing ODA programs that some promises have produced the opposite of the hoped-for effect of winning friendship with recipient countries.

In Myanmar, for example, Japan took part in the construction of the Baluchaung hydroelectric power station to meet the growing need for infrastructural improvement as foreign capital is flowing into and many foreign companies are establishing operations in that country. But the plant’s maintenance became quite inadequate as a result of sanctions imposed by the international community on Myanmar’s military regime and this sharply lowered the plant’s rate of operation, subsequently greatly reducing the amount of electricity produced.

In 2012, in view of Myanmar’s democratization efforts, Japan resumed yen-denominated loans, and the Abe administration pledged various assistance programs including an overhaul of the power station.

But the actual work undertaken by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is seen as being too slow by Myanmar President Thein Sein, who wants to show the fruit of democratization prior to the general elections scheduled for 2015.

He is said to have made frequent requests for expediting the work.

Southeast Asian countries that have long relied on aid from China are accustomed to quick decision making and prompt implementation of policies peculiar to a country of one-party dictatorship. They are dissatisfied with the slow pace of work by Japan. Unless this gap is closed, it will be difficult for Japan to drive a wedge between the ASEAN member nations and China.

Asian neighbors are also frustrated by Tokyo’s foot-dragging in acceptance of foreign workers into Japan. In view of labor shortages in construction and other industries, accepting more workers from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia has been made an important feature of Abe’s economic growth strategy.

But this initiative has been hindered by uneasiness among the Japanese public about coexistence with foreigners and the failure on the part of the government to carry out in-depth discussions on long-term immigration policy.

Since many Southeast Asian countries rely on the foreign currencies earned by their citizens working abroad, any further delay on the part of Japan in this matter will only invite bitter resentment from them. Abe’s tendency to prematurely announce what he wants to do, before finding out what he can do, is making his diplomacy shoddy.

Some bureaucrats, especially in the Justice Ministry, are prejudiced against foreign workers and overreact to Abe’s initiatives, as exemplified by the following recent quotes:

• “Hiring Indonesian workers would create security risks [in Japan], because their country is Islamic and has experienced terrorism.”

• “Permitting more Filipinos to come to Japan would help promote illegal entertainment business that uses Filipinos.”

• “Rules on issuing visas to Vietnamese should not be eased because they are responsible for the majority of pickpocketing cases committed by foreigners in Japan.”

Although it is said that the prime minister’s office — not the bureaucracy — is playing a leading role in working out and executing the Abe administration’s policies, the fact remains that bureaucrats are concerned more with protecting the interests of their ministries and agencies than with their duty of helping the prime minister implement his policies. Abe’s endeavor to reinforce Japan’s ties with Southeast Asian countries is not a bad thing because it could also serve to improve Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.

But an arrogant optimism is heard within his inner circles that the ASEAN nations have not criticized Abe’s Asia diplomacy or security policy and that it is China and South Korea, not Japan, that are facing isolation.

The newly emerging Asian nations are aware that their survival hinges on keeping good relations with all countries through “equidistant diplomacy.” Any idea of containing and isolating China, as Abe seeks to accomplish, won’t come to fruition unless Japan becomes a more reliable country than China on all matters from security to trade, human resources development and assistance for economic development.

In the course of the recent debate on enabling Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, Abe’s ruling coalition paid little attention to a concrete crisis that is actually happening — the clash between Chinese and Vietnamese ships. This has created a calculation among Southeast Asian countries that Japan might abandon them when it comes down to the crunch.

Abe’s Asia diplomacy is not worthy of being called a “strategy” because he is unable to adequately take into consideration the positions and feelings of those countries that cannot flee from the shadow of their giant neighbor, China.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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