News analysis

Japan woos Asean in aim to be leading security player

As part of Japan's desire to play a leading role in maritime security in the region befitting its status as a major power, it has been increasingly making overtures to Asean, according to experts.

But its Achilles heel, they said, is its wartime past and a shortage of personnel and ships which have prevented Tokyo from doing even more, such as taking part in freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) with the United States Navy in the South China Sea.

Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) last week invited military officials from the 10 Asean nations for a five-day tour on board its largest warship, the Izumo.

The Izumo, which was docked in Singapore as part of a three-month deployment in the region, will take part in Exercise Malabar with the US and Indian navies in the Indian Ocean next month before returning to Japan.

Such exercises, experts said, are aimed at building trust, and the outreach to Asean was symbolic even as the frigate stopped short of breaching the nine-dash line that Beijing uses to justify its capacious claims in the South China Sea.

China has loomed large in Japan's maritime security equation, and Tokyo hopes the showcase of its naval force can help it foster closer ties with Asean amid growing Chinese assertiveness in the waterway. Japan is not party to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands and deployed military assets.

Tokyo's concerns stem from Chinese attempts to "change the existing international order through force, rather than through debate", and so hopes to demonstrate its ability to protect the existing international order, said senior research fellow Bonji Ohara of think-tank Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

By not letting the Izumo cross the nine-dash line, Japan hoped to convey that it does not regard China with hostility, added Dr Ohara, who once served as chief of intelligence for the MSDF.

"Its goal was not to heighten tensions. There was no need to take any actions that would unnecessarily provoke Beijing."

This comes as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to demonstrate that Tokyo can play a "leading - and not just larger - role in the region", said Dr Masashi Nishihara, who heads the Research Institute for Peace and Security.

The exercise last week is a case in point, said Dr Heng Yee Kuang of the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy, as it helps to plant the idea within Asean security consciousness that Japan is a major player.

He said: "Mr Abe has made clear that Japan is not - and will not be - a second-rank power on his watch."

But even as this is so, Mr Abe is well aware of the diplomatic risks that come with the territory.

Therein lies the delicate balance in its push to protect international norms without antagonising Beijing, which is wont to raise Japan's wartime aggression and eyes its military might with scepticism.

"Japan wants to be a power that can help its neighbours in South-east Asia help themselves by providing naval and coast guard vessels and training," Dr Nishihara said, noting that Vietnam and the Philippines are benefactors. The two countries, with Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, all have claims in the South China Sea.

Dr Heng added that if Tokyo were to take part in Fonops, it risks inciting China over disputed islets in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Kobe University defence expert Tosh Minohara, meanwhile, said the uncertainty of US presence in Asia means Japan will eventually have to "pick up the slack".

"A country of Japan's size, stature and military potential cannot just be a receiver of security, but has to be able to provide," he said. "The SDF (Self-Defence Forces) are still very much symbolic."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2017, with the headline 'Japan woos Asean in aim to be leading security player'. Print Edition | Subscribe