Japanese PM vows to expand security role in Asia

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he would "boost Japan's diplomatic and security role in the region". ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday (June 10) vowed to expand his country’s diplomatic and security role in Asia as he outlined his vision for an open, free and peaceful Indo-Pacific region at the Shangri-La Dialogue. 

Japan is committed to “realism diplomacy for a new era”, in which Tokyo “will be more proactive than ever in tackling the challenges and crises that face Japan, Asia and the world”, Mr Kishida told some 500 defence ministers, senior officials and prominent scholars from 42 countries gathered to attend Asia’s top security summit at the Shangri-La hotel in downtown Orchard Road on Friday evening. 

The world is facing a situation in which “confidence in the universal rules that govern international relations is being shaken”, the Japanese leader said. 

“While focusing on universal values that everyone should respect and defend, we must firmly hold aloft the banner of our ideals for the future, such as a world without nuclear weapons, while also responding astutely and decisively as the situation demands.” 

Mr Kishida was giving the keynote speech on the first day of the three-day forum organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). 

His address comes against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating international security environment and as Japan finds itself in an increasingly precarious position amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing maritime assertiveness, and North Korea’s repeated missile and nuclear tests. 

Tokyo has in recent months emerged as a leading Asian voice against challenges to the international security order. 

On Friday, Mr Kishida pledged to strengthen the rules-based international order. 

“Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” he said. “I will seek to build a stable international order through dialogue, not confrontation. At the same time, however, we must be prepared for the emergence of an entity that tramples on the peace and security of other countries by force or threat without honouring the rules.” 

The premier promised to lay out a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Plan for Peace” by next spring, allocating a budget of at least US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion) in assistance to countries in the region over the next three years. 

The plan includes providing equipment such as patrol vessels, and building up the maritime transport infrastructure and law enforcement capabilities of at least 20 countries. 

Tokyo’s principal security interest in the Indo-Pacific is the safety and security of the regional sea lanes, and it has in recent years expressed a growing concern over rising tensions in those waters.

Mr Kishida also sought to foster an understanding of his recent decisions to significantly build up Japan’s defence capabilities within the next five years and to secure a substantial increase in its defence budget. 

“We need to enhance our deterrence and response capabilities,” he said. “This will be absolutely essential if Japan is to learn to survive in the new era and keep speaking out as a standard-bearer of peace.” 

Japan will set out a new national security strategy by the end of the year, he added.

Tokyo is also considering changes to its pacifist Constitution, as well as first-strike capabilities as a deterrence to its adversaries. 

Amid nuclear threats posed by Russia, China and North Korea, Mr Kishida said Japan would pursue realistic efforts towards denuclearisation based on its relationship of trust with the United States. 

He called for greater transparency of countries’ nuclear arsenals. 

“The threat of nuclear weapons, let alone the use of them, should never be tolerated,” he said.

“As the Prime Minister of the only country that has suffered the devastation of atomic bombings, I strongly appeal for this.”

Japan’s expanded security role in Asia is likely to provide a greater counterbalance to China’s influence in the region.

But, as a delegate at the summit noted, the most notable point of Mr Kishida’s vision for a more secure Asia Pacific “is continuity, not change”.

Japan has already been reshaping the security framework in the region since former premier Shinzo Abe’s administration, said former top Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, who now chairs the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

"A more proactive Japan will be of great significance in maintaining stability in the regional and global order." 

Malaysia’s former deputy defence minister Liew Chin Tong, also there as a delegate, welcomed Mr Kishida’s efforts to project stronger leadership in Asia. 

“The region, and indeed the world, is at a turning point. More activist leadership is better than sleepwalking,” he said. “The region needs leaders to lead and to manage the tense relationships in order to avoid war.”

Mr Kishida’s appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue is the first by a Japanese premier since 2014, when Mr Abe attended. 

The Shangri-La Dialogue resumed this year after a two-year pandemic hiatus. 

  • Additional reporting by Eileen Ng 

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.