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Boosting ties

Martin Fritz, Tokyo / sriDecember 17, 2013

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is setting up a network of Asian partners aimed at countering China's influence on the continent. The Southeast Asian association ASEAN has now sided with Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hosts a banquet at his office in Tokyo on Dec. 13, 2013, for leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations before a summit with Japan. (Photo: Kyoto)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Representatives of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a regional summit in Tokyo over the weekend (December13-15) where they expressed their support in a joint statement for unhindered air and maritime traffic in Asia.

By doing so, the grouping took a clear stance against China's recently-declared air defense zone over the East China Sea. Although the statement did not name China, it stated that Japan and ASEAN members had "agreed to enhance cooperation in ensuring freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety."

Japan's head of government, Shinzo Abe, used the opportunity to warn China against further escalating tensions in the region. "We urge the Chinese to revoke all measures that infringe on the general principles (of airspace)," Abe said. Japan is not a member of the association, but the summit was set to commemorate 40 years of Japan-ASEAN ties, which play an important role in Japan's foreign and security policies.

Focus on Southeast Asia

In the 12 months since being elected prime minister, Abe has visited 25 countries, including the United States, Russia, several Middle Eastern nations and all 10 ASEAN member states. European countries have not been on the 59-year-old's list.

Traffic moves along a busy downtown street November 30, 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar. Business is booming in this newly opened Southeast Asian country. Import restrictions have been eased resulting in many new cars seen on the streets. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Japan is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, also known as BurmaImage: Getty Images

With his traveling diplomacy, Abe is seeking to fill the foreign policy vacuum created by the constant changes that have taken place in Japanese leadership since 2006. This means that Japan is building a network of friends and partners in Asia, the world's most populous region, and distinguishing itself as a counterweight to China.

Myanmar stands as the perfect example for this policy. Japan's first wrote off more than 2.7 billion USD in debt and then surpassed China as the largest investor in the South Asian nation. Over to weekend, Burmese President Thein Sein signed an agreement to secure these investments. Japanese companies want to develop several industrial zones in Burma.

Sale of Infrastructure

In the first half of this year, Japanese investments in Southeast Asia rose by 89 percent to around 10.3 billion USD. Tokyo also intends to consolidate its ties with other Asian countries by providing them with capital and development assistance.

Since the 1960s, Japan has emerged as the largest foreign aid donor to the countries in the region. The aid program was understood by many as reparations payments for the Second World War. Despite its high public debt, Japan still remains the World's largest creditor nation. However, lending for infrastructure development often goes hand in hand with contracts awarded to consortia controlled by the Japanese.

This could be the case even with the 20 billion USD that Tokyo pledged during the recent summit. Abe spoke, before meeting his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak, about "opportunities" in infrastructure development such as the planned high-speed train linking Singapore and the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

Abe lobbied during the meeting for the Japanese super express train network Shinkansen. Although Razak stressed that the tender is open, his country's "Look East" policy is aimed at expanding economic and strategic relations with Japan.

No neo-imperialism

Despite their suffering at the hands of imperial Japan during WW II, many countries in Asia are happy to see Japan standing up to China. After delivering patrol boats to the Philippines, Japan is also intending to provide them to Vietnam. Beijing is engaged in territorial disputes with both Manila and Hanoi. The Asian nations, however, do not want to see Tokyo return to its militarism of the 1930s.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono welcomed Japan's aid and efforts to improve security in the region. But at the same time, he urged Tokyo to maintain transparency in its military buildup.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) shakes hands with his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak (L) at the end of a media announcement after their talks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo December 12, 2013. Najib is here to attend summit meetings between Japanese and ASEAN leaders. (Photo: Reuters)
Malaysian Premier Najib Razak (l) promised opportunities for Japanese companies in his countryImage: Reuters

The Abe administration is in fact trying to be more transparent about their changes in the country's security policy. The Japanese Cabinet has recently decided to increase defense spending over the next five years by 2.6 percent. The spending is to better equip the military to fend off strikes over land, sea and in air, according to Tokyo's new security strategy.

Specifically, the government wants to aquire three drones, 28 stealth bombers, five submarines, two anti-missile destroyers and more than 50 amphibious vehicles. This list is also no doubt aimed at reassuring Japan's partners in Asia that its defensive military posture remains unchanged.