Japan-ASEAN ties ′may stabilize balance of power′ | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 30.05.2014
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Japan-ASEAN ties 'may stabilize balance of power'

With tensions rising in Asia over China's growing assertiveness, Japan has vowed to play a larger role in regional security. Analyst Zack Cooper explains how the move may help neighboring countries defend the status quo.

"Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of ASEAN as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies, and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday, May 30 in a keynote speech at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. The speech comes amid tensions between China and its neighbors over Beijing's growing assertiveness.

China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea and rejects rival claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. Tensions recently escalated between Hanoi and Beijing after China placed a giant oil rig in waters claimed by both countries, with the two communist countries trading accusations of responsibility for aggravating the situation.

In a DW interview, Zack Cooper, a fellow with the Japan Chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), explains why increased Japan-ASEAN ties may strengthen regional security.

Are we witnessing a Japanese reaction to China's "oil rig diplomacy?"

Prime Minister Abe's comments are a reaction not only to China's oil rig diplomacy with Vietnam, or maritime stand-off with the Philippines, but to the continuing trend of China's increasingly assertive actions against its neighbors. Although Prime Minister Abe is one of the few Asian leaders willing to publicly express concern about China's increasing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, he is certainly not alone in these sentiments.

Zack Cooper - fellow of Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cooper: "Abe's comments are a reaction to the continuing trend of China's increasingly assertive actions against its neighbors"

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, South Korea and others have all experienced Chinese pressure regarding territorial disputes in recent months and years. Separately, these countries are likely to struggle to uphold their claims in the face of Chinese assertiveness, but together (and with backing from the United States) these countries have a better chance of defending the status quo and convincing China to observe international rules and norms surrounding peaceful resolution of territorial disputes.

Is Abe's speech likely to ease or rather heighten regional tensions?

In my view, it is China that has raised tensions in the region, and the question for its neighbors is whether they should simply accept China's salami-slicing tactics, or attempt to uphold the existing status quo.

I believe Japan's efforts to form a stronger regional counterweight to China by weaving together regional states are likely to increase regional security in the long-term. As Prime Minister Abe said earlier this week, "The world security environment is changing a great deal. No one country can defend itself alone.

This sentiment is often echoed in Southeast Asia, which has long focused on working together to ensure regional stability and prosperity. As a result, Japan's growing cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbors should help strengthen the regional security environment and help stabilize the regional balance of power.

How willing is Japan to support other Asian countries involved in maritime disputes with China, such as say Vietnam or the Philippines?

Prime Minister Abe appears to have made clear that Japan will "offer its utmost support” to countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Japan has strong and longstanding positive ties with Southeast Asian countries and shared interests in promoting political stability, regional security, economic growth, and good governance in the region.

Japan already works with the Philippines on maritime security issues, providing patrol craft to help the Philippines police its waters, and Vietnam and Japan are reportedly discussing similar cooperation. Japan may also be able to help these and other states develop the capabilities and operational concepts needed to defend their territorial claims without escalating tensions.

What does the US government make of Japan playing a greater role in Asian security issues?

The United States welcomes a more proactive Japanese role in regional security, although US leaders have been careful not to prejudge Japan's own domestic decision-making processes on collective self-defense or other national decisions.

As US President Obama outlined in a speech at West Point a few days ago, US leaders are going to be increasingly reliant on strong regional allies and partners. Nowhere is this more true than in Asia. And no country in Asia can do more to help strengthen international order, rules, and norms than Japan.

As the second-largest economy and closest US ally in the region, an expanded Japanese role is vital not only for regional security but also to demonstrate to the United States that it has strong allies and partners to help it maintain order in East Asia.

Abe's government is trying to ease constitutional restraints on Japan's military, which can be used only in its own self-defense. How do you assess Abe's chances of successfully changing the constitution for this purpose?

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago in this January 17, 2013 file picture.

The question for China's neighbors is whether they should accept Beijing's salami-slicing tactics or attempt to uphold the status quo, says Cooper

Prime Minister Abe has two options for easing Japanese self-defense restraints. The easier option is to alter Japan's interpretation of the constitution while the more difficult option is to change the constitution itself.

Changing the constitution will require much political capital, a vital resource that might be spent elsewhere, but if Abe deems this critical to Japan's future, he may be able to build the necessary coalition to do so, although this will take time.

Zack Cooper is a fellow with the Japan Chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he focuses on Asian security issues.