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Asia

How China is driving Japan closer to Southeast Asia

As Sino-Japanese relations sour, Tokyo has been boosting political, economic and defense ties with Southeast Asia in a bid to strengthen its position in the region. DW examines how this is impacting the balance of power.

Japan, Asia's second-largest economy, has had important relations with Southeast Asian nations throughout the post-1945 era. For instance, the country has long been a major provider of overseas development aid, and Japanese companies have invested heavily in the region, taking advantage of its lower labor costs by locating significant portions of their manufacturing activities there.

Additionally, Southeast Asia has long served as an important supplier of raw materials to Japan, especially gas from Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia, as well as coal from Indonesia. In turn, Japanese firms have sought to increase their exports of manufactured goods and services to the region, with bilateral trade between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) amounting to $248 billion in 2011.

But while this close relationship has existed for decades, ties have intensified recently, particularly since the return to power of conservative PM Shinzo Abe in December 2012. "Prime Minister Abe signaled the increasing importance of this region to Japan by making Southeast Asia the destination for his first overseas trip during his second term," James D. J. Brown, an expert on international affairs at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, told DW.

A turning point

A key factor in this context, say experts, were the anti-Japanese riots in China in late 2012, which were triggered by territorial disputes over the islets of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain in the East China Sea (ECS), which both countries claim.

Malaysia East Asia Summit - Shinzo Abe

Relations between Japan and ASEAN have intensified since the return to power of PM Abe

After this episode, Japanese multinational corporations recognized the risks to their global supply chain from having too much dependence on China-based production, and started shifting their investments away from China and increasingly setting their sights on the ASEAN region.

"The anti-Japanese riots in China increased the attractiveness of Southeast Asia as an alternative location for manufacturing production," Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific Chief Economist at global analytics firm IHS, told DW. As a bloc, ASEAN is the third-largest economy in Asia and has a total population of 620 million.

Other factors pushing Japanese multinationals towards lower wage economies such as Vietnam and Indonesia are China's rising manufacturing costs and the overall economic slowdown. This is because, if Chinese growth were to grind to a halt, the negative effect that this would undoubtedly have on the Japanese economy could be partially offset by strong economic relations with ASEAN, as analyst Brown pointed out.

Conflicting interests

But the reasons behind Japan's rebalance are not limited to economics. Tokyo has also been alarmed at China's growing assertiveness in territorial disputes not only in the ECS but also in the South China Sea (SCS).

"Japan sees China in the ECS and SCS as attempting to become the regional hegemon," Stephen R. Nagy, an associate professor on International Studies at the International Christian University in Tokyo, told DW.

The expert argues that the ECS dispute is not really about the islets but rather about access to the Asia Pacific and pushing out US influence, while the SCS row is mainly about trade and energy security for both China and Japan. "China sees the SCS as its backyard that requires securitization while Japan sees the region as a crucial sea lane," Nagy underlined.

While Japan is no SCS littoral state and is not party to the territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, Tokyo views the issue as extremely important to its national security given that a large proportion of the country's trade passes through these disputed waters, including all of the vital energy resources that Japan imports from the Middle East.

In light of this, Kristen Gunness, an expert on the Chinese military and the CEO of Vantage Point Asia LLC, argues that Beijing's assertiveness in the region "has definitely played a role in pushing Japan to form closer ties to Southeast Asian nations."

Enhancing military ties

As China continues its land reclamation activities in the SCS, the other nations in East and Southeast Asia have a vested interest in pushing back, said the analyst, adding that one of the best ways to achieve this is through an increased maritime presence.

This explains why Japan has been actively seeking to strengthen relations with ASEAN, and in particular with those states in the bloc that are most willing to stand up to China's behavior. "It is for this reason that Japan's security cooperation is directed primarily towards the Philippines and Vietnam, since both of these states have serious territorial disputes with China over the SCS," said analyst Brown.

This has resulted in Japan taking the controversial step of reinterpreting the country's pacifist constitution to permit the use of military force in a wider range of circumstances as well as significantly easing its long-standing restrictions of arms sales. Moreover, Tokyo has been ramping up of efforts to intensify defense and security exchanges and providing assistance for ASEAN governments to build up their maritime security capacity.

For instance, Japan and the Philippines upgraded ties to a "strengthened strategic partnership" when Filipino President Benigno Aquino visited Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo in June 2015. The Abe administration also agreed to provide the Philippines with 10 multirole vessels for use in upholding the archipelago's maritime security. Lastly, in May 2015, Japan and the Philippines conducted their first joint naval exercises in the SCS.

Japan Philippinen gemeinsame Manöver im Südchinesischen Meer

Japan and the Philippines conducted their first joint naval exercises in the SCS in May 2015

Similarly, Japan and Vietnam became strategic partners in 2006 and a deal was reached in 2014 for Japan to supply six maritime vessels. In 2015, an agreement was also made permitting ships from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) to make port calls in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay.

Lastly and most controversially, in November 2015, PM Abe announced that he was considering the possibility of Japan's MSDF conducting patrols in the SCS. "This statement was quickly condemned by China's Foreign Ministry as an unwelcome 'intervention' in an area that Beijing considers to be of vital national importance," said Brown.

Mutually beneficial ties

But how does ASEAN benefit from the Sino-Japanese rivalry? Experts such as Biswas point out that closer economic and security relations with Japan are clearly in the interest of Southeast Asian states.

"Many Southeast Asian countries have strong trade and investment ties with China but are becoming increasingly concerned about its military assertiveness. Therefore strengthening ties with Japan is seen as one approach by some of these nations to reduce their vulnerability to China," said the economist.

Moreover, competition between Japanese and Chinese companies to win contracts in the region will enable the Southeast Asian governments to extract more favorable terms from the bidders, say experts.

And as for defense ties, although Japan's potential for military activity remains constitutionally constrained, the growing security cooperation between Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam is expected to help to partially alleviate these states' concerns about maritime security.

The road ahead

As a result, says analyst Gunness, Japan will likely continue to use a combination of military and economic incentives to increase its influence with ASEAN in the near future. "Economically, Japan will boost investments and foreign development assistance to increase its presence and influence," she said.

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Japanese companies have been shifting their investments away from China and increasingly setting their sights on the ASEAN region

And as the region develops economically, there will be growing opportunities for Japanese companies to increase exports of high-tech goods and take part in large-scale infrastructure projects. Furthermore, said analyst Brown, as labor shortages begin to intensify in Japan, many more Japanese firms are likely to consider relocating their manufacturing activities to Southeast Asia.

In the military realm, Gunness expects to see more high-level visits by both civilian and military leaders, as well as joint military and training exercises between Japan and ASEAN nations and between their respective coast guards. Assistance with maritime surveillance and reconnaissance might also be something Japan would consider helping Southeast Asian militaries and coast guards with, she added.

The combination of all these factors, explains Koh Swee Lean Collin, an associate research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, have led to Japan's increased role in Southeast Asia being welcomed even by neutral countries such as Indonesia.

"These geopolitical, economic and technical factors all combine to justify Japan's strategic 'pivot' to Southeast Asia. And it is China's assertiveness which has undoubtedly provided the most convincing and overarching driving force of all," Koh told DW.