Japan's re-emergence and South-east Asia

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a review ceremony at the Self-Defence Forces' Hyakuri air base in Ibaraki prefecture last October. The country's defence budget for this year is set to cover state-of-the-art military acquisitions, including F-35
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a review ceremony at the Self-Defence Forces' Hyakuri air base in Ibaraki prefecture last October. The country's defence budget for this year is set to cover state-of-the-art military acquisitions, including F-35 stealth fighter jets. -- PHOTO: AFP

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kicked off the year with a bang, endorsing a US$42 billion (S$56 billion) defence budget, which is set to cover state-of-the-art military acquisitions, featuring F-35 stealth fighter jets, P-1 maritime patrol aircraft as well as components of Northrop Grumman RQ-4 drones and Aegis combat systems, among others.

The newly endorsed budget marks a 2 per cent year-on-year increase, bringing Japan's defence spending closer to 1 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Despite the landmark increase in the Japanese Self-Defence Forces' budget, the country is still spending considerably less than other Pacific powers such as China, Russia and the United States, which have allocated between 2 per cent and 4 per cent of their GDP to augmenting their military muscle.

Yet, Japan's imperial past - this week marks the 73rd anniversary of Japan's occupation of Singapore - and what are seen as "historically revisionist" statements by ultra-conservative elements in Tokyo have, in the view of certain neighbouring countries, cast a negative light on the Abe administration's efforts to beef up Japan's deterrence capabilities.

Such perceptions underscore the importance of a more proactive Japanese public diplomacy, focused on the country's hugely positive contribution over the decades to regional trade, economic development among less developed countries especially in South-east Asia, and unwavering commitment to the tenets of its post-war Constitution.

If anything, Japan has emerged as an important contributor to expanding regional trade and enhanced maritime security in South-east Asia. To enhance Japan's regional leadership role, Mr Abe chose South-east Asia as his first foreign destination as prime minister in 2013. He also promised up to US$19.2 billion in new trade and investment deals, partly to counter China's growing economic influence in the region.

In what is dubbed as the "Second Wave" of Japanese foreign direct investment foray into South-east Asia, Mr Abe has also stepped up Japan's economic diplomacy towards Asean, with major Japanese companies poised to expand their investments in frontier markets such as Myanmar and major emerging markets such as Indonesia.

Crucially, Mr Abe has also transformed Japan into a key strategic partner of South-east Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which have been locked in bitter territorial disputes with China. Japan has also pushed for an Asean-wide information sharing system to allow for better monitoring of developments in the South China Sea.

Since his return to power in late 2012, Mr Abe has vociferously pushed for a more assertive and independent Japanese foreign policy, ending almost a decade of declining defence spending amid seismic and rapid changes in the regional security environment. The rise of China and the ongoing maritime disputes in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have played a key role in encouraging a major strategic re-assessment in Japan. Meanwhile, the perceived decline of the US - the primary guarantor of Japanese national security - has accelerated efforts at making Japan a more self-reliant power.

With the Pentagon confronting steep budget cuts and struggling to maintain its large naval fleet, which has served as an anchor of the regional order for decades, allies in Japan, the Philippines and across South-east Asia have begun to doubt the Americans' wherewithal to fully operationalise the military dimension of its pivot to Asia policy to match China's rapidly expanding military might in the coming decades.

Mr Abe has relaxed restrictions on Japanese military exports, astutely endorsed a revised interpretation of constitutional provisions on Japan's defence policies, and overseen an upgrade in Japan-US bilateral defence guidelines. His foreign policy reforms aim to give Japan more flexibility in terms of its ability to project power, aid allies and new strategic partners (that is, the Philippines) in moments of crisis, and hone the country's deterrence capabilities.

Mr Abe's laudable efforts at making Japan a more self-reliant power as well as a major force for stability and prosperity in the region have gone hand in hand with concerns over controversial statements emanating from his allies and conservative circles in Tokyo.

In recent years, neighbouring countries, as well as the US, have cautioned the Abe administration to refrain from engaging in any rhetoric or behaviour which smacks of historical revisionism. In 2013, Singapore's Foreign Ministry issued a statement criticising Mr Abe's controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, saying "such visits reopen old grievances, and are unhelpful to building trust and confidence in the region".

And in an interview last week with a German newspaper, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed that there is "a new generation in the Japanese government which wants Japan to be a normal country without wanting to assume responsibility (for the past)".

While Singapore understands Japan's attempt to counterbalance China's influence in the region, Mr Lee said: "If Japan wants to have more influence, then this would be possible only in a way that does not evoke old fears. They have not yet reached that point."

Singapore, along with several South-east Asian countries, bore the brunt of Japanese imperial aggression during World War II.

There is, however, little cause to evoke the spectre of Japanese re-militarisation, given the country's incredibly restrained defence spending and the resilient spirit of pacifism among the Japanese population, who have fervently and repeatedly opposed any fundamental amendment to the peace Constitution.

Recently, there are growing signs that the Abe administration has acknowledged the importance of adopting strategic sensitivity and a more proactive public diplomacy. In recent months, Japan has engaged in various efforts to reassure estranged neighbours by dampening hawkish rhetoric emanating from conservative circles in Tokyo, and introducing confidence-building measures on both security and cultural-educational fronts with neighbours.

Obviously, there is still much room for progress, but Mr Abe's Japan isn't a re-militarising menacing power.


The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines. S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.