A Spider’s Web to Catch a Dragon? The South China Sea Disputes and Japanese Aid Policy in Southeast Asia

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China and Japan continue to compete for influence across the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, the competition is prompting Japan to make some interesting policy choices, writes Tom French. One of them includes pursuing closer cooperation with the US’s
  15 November 2012  A Spider's Web to Catch a Dragon? The SouthChina Sea Disputes and Japanese Aid Policy in Southeast Asia China and Japan continue to compete for influence across the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, thecompetition is prompting Japan to make some interesting policy choices, writes Tom French. One of them includes pursuing closer cooperation with the US’s regional allies.By Tom French for ISN Security WatchBehind the well-publicized souring of Japan-China relations caused by the purchase of the Senkaku(Diaoyu) islands by the Japanese central government lies a larger picture of increasing polarizationacross North and South East Asia. The United State’ strategic ‘pivot’ towards Asia is beingaccompanied by a drive by Washington and many pro-US countries to co-operate more closely in theface of a ‘rising’ and potentially belligerent China. The past year has seen what some consider thebeginnings of a move away from the Cold War era ‘hub and spoke’ system of bilateral securityalliances, towards a more interconnected ‘spider’s web’ relationship between the pro-US states of East Asia.Such a shift of alliances became apparent in June when Japan and the Republic of Korea came closeto signing a deal to enhance technology and intelligence co-operation. However, South Korea’sinternal politics and the ongoing territorial dispute over Takeshima (Dokdo   ) prevented theconclusion of the agreement at the last minute (it may be signed once the South Korean presidentialelection is decided in December). Failure to reach an agreement also serves as a timely reminder of the influence that history - particularly the Second World War - still exerts on modern East Asia.  Japan’s Southeast Asian ‘tilt’  Japan had more success in the Philippines with regard to its efforts of creating a more integratedpro-US bloc. The Philippines, another close ally of the US, has a major maritime territorial disputewith China over the Spratley Islands. Unlike in the case of South Korea, Japan’s approach toimproving ties with the Philippines focused upon the strategic use of official development assistance(ODA). In April, Japan announced its intention in the 2+2 Japan-U.S. Security ConsultativeCommittee to use ODA to ‘promote safety in the region . . . through providing coastal states withpatrol boats’. The first such deal was concluded with the Philippines in late July. Although officially designated for “various maritime safety and law enforcement issues, such as piracy and search and  rescue,” it seems increasingly clear that the ten patrol boats and two larger vessels Japan intends togive to the Philippines are intended to strengthen its ability to resist Chinese pressure in the SouthChina Sea. They also form part of a broader change in the use of Japan’s vast ODA resources inSoutheast Asia to assist friendly states enhance their infrastructure, industry and military capacities.This strategy wins (or perhaps buys) Japan, and the emerging US bloc, a number of benefits.By increasing the strength of the South East Asian states’ maritime capabilities (particularly thosewith ongoing territorial disputes with China), Chinese maritime resources will have to increasinglyfocus upon both  North and South East Asia. This will require the diversion of resources and units toits southern commands in order for China to maintain its currently favorable balance of poweracross the region. Chinese naval strategy may also need to be adjusted to account for the enhancedcapabilities of its rivals in the South China Sea. Chinese coastguard and naval units, for example,may need to be upgraded and / or replaced in order to more effectively deal with the technologicallyadvanced boats that the Japanese are likely to provide.The strategic provision of ODA not only strengthens bilateral ties between Japan and individualSoutheast Asian states, it may also lead to improved diplomatic ties within the pro-US bloc.Moreover, Japan’s improving ties with Southeast Asia may also serve to strengthen the US-Japanalliance. Over the past year, relations between Tokyo and Washington have been strained due to theongoing deadlock over the relocation of the Futenma base, worries over the safety of the Osprey aircraft and recent alleged crimes by US servicemen. However, despite these problems and the backlash they provoke - particularly among Okinawans - the Japanese government still sees theUS-Japan alliance as its most important bilateral relationship. The recent escalation of the disputeover the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands and the rising wave of anti-Japanese sentiment in China havereminded Tokyo that an effective and sustainable US-Japan alliance is perhaps the greatestguarantee of Japan’s security in a rapidly changing Asia Pacific.To demonstrate the changing dynamics of the region, a number of commentators have also cited thefirst ever failure of ASEAN to agree a joint communiqué as evidence of the emergence of a riftwithin the organization between states leaning towards China and those with closer ties with theUnited States. With the emergence of this possible fragmentation into pro-Chinese and pro-US blocs,integration of the resource-rich states of Southeast Asia into the American centered group wouldclearly be seen as a benefit to both Japan and the US. Consequently, it may also have been asecondary motivation behind Japan’s decision to target its ODA in a more strategic way across theregion.Finally, the provision of the maritime vessels, and the development aid which accompanies them,may provide new business opportunities for a still struggling Japanese economy. This change markssomething of a fundamental and underreported shift in Japanese defense and aid policy. From thelate 1960s onwards, Japan’s ‘three principles on arms exports’ set such stringent restrictions on thearms trade that the export of military hardware became exceptionally difficult. Recently, Japan hasbegun to relax its stance and allow arms exports and defense co-operation with other friendly,pro-US states. The first of these agreements was signed with the United Kingdom in April 2012.  Asia’s ‘pro-US’ Camp Tokyo’s increasingly warm diplomatic ties with Southeast Asia, coupled with its strategic use of ODA,may also suggest that Japan is gradually overcoming the antimilitarist norm prevalent in its societysince 1945. Not only have these policies been met with little in the way of domestic opposition, theycome at a time when profile of more conservative politicians in Japan - such as Shinzo Abe   , ToruHashimoto, and Shintaro Ishihara - has never been higher. Whether their media appeal will translate into electoral success or has more to do with the ongoing domestic political malaise in Japan,  remains to be seen. Nevertheless, despite their alleged ‘nationalism’ most of these politicians, whileoccasionally bristling over the impact of US bases on the country, do not seek to abandon theUS-Japan alliance. Indeed, many Japanese politicians even seek to strengthen it, albeit on moreequitable terms. Accordingly, with both the current government and opposition seeking closer ties with Washingtonand the promotion of better regional diplomatic relations, it seems as if an increasingly integratedpro-US camp is emerging across the Asia Pacific region. Enhanced defense cooperation andeconomic relations, driven in part by the erosion of Japan’s antimilitarist norm and arms exportrestrictions, are seen as essential instruments of foreign and security policies in the face of a rising,and increasingly assertive, China.For additional reading on this topic please see:Uncomfortable Truths: Breaking the Impasse in the South China SeaThe South China Sea: "Good Friends, Good Partners, Good Neighbors"? Good Luck!South China Sea: Emerging Security ArchitectureFor more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN's featurededitorial content and the ISN Blog. Thomas French is an Associate Professor in the College of International Relations, RitsumeikanUniversity, Kyoto. His research interests include US-Japan relations, Northeast Asian security andthe Japanese Self Defence Forces. Publisher  International Relations and Security Network (ISN)Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Security-Watch/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=154873 2012 ISN, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, Switzerland
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