Abe’s Trip to Southeast Asia
By Alex Calvo
SNA (Tokyo) — The run up to the House of Councillors election in Japan, when opinion polls were already pointing to a victory by the ruling party, saw widespread speculation over a more robust foreign and defense policy by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This included the possibility of amending Article Nine of the Constitution. News of the election results only served to prompt renewed speculation. However, Abe’s first overseas trip after the polls — to Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines — seemed to confirm that Tokyo would proceed with a gradual and pragmatic “normalization,” rather than embark on radical change.
While Abe confirmed the supply of ten cutters to the Philippine Coast Guard, he explained that there would be no permanent presence of Japanese troops in the country’s bases other than those temporarily taking part in international drills.
Also, the agenda in Singapore seemed more geared toward economic issues, with Abe explaining at length the state of the Japanese economy and his vision for the country’s future.
The first country Abe visited was Malaysia, where the agenda was centered on the economy and bilateral cooperation. In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, he praised Malaysia for its Look East policy, which amounts to “learning from Japan.” Stressing that it is now “a safe and affluent nation,” Abe pointed out that, “Malaysia is the most popular country in which Japanese people buy a second house after they retire.” The text explained that in their meeting, Abe and his counterpart, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, had gone beyond discussing “a quantitative expansion of trade and investment.” Instead, they had searched for ways to “strengthen the societal links between [the] two countries.”
Despite the economic stagnation of the last two decades, Japan remains a technological powerhouse, and this is a key component of Tokyo’s soft power in Southeast Asia. As countries like Malaysia grow and their societies become older and more sophisticated, the attraction of Japanese technology increases. In the waterworks, and power generation from waste.”
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) featured in Abe’s agenda. Actually, his visit took place while the 18th round of talks went ahead, on July 25, in Putrajaya (near the Malaysian capital). A number of sources stressed Japanese and Malaysian common interest in preserving tariff protection for some key agricultural products such as rice. The situation, however, is rather complex. As explained by Kazuo Ikejiri in the Asahi Shinbun:
“The National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, which virtually supported the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the Upper House election on July 21, has been calling on Abe’s government to protect tariffs on five sectors: rice, barley and wheat, dairy products, beef, and pork, and sweetening crops such as sugar and starches. Maintaining the tariffs may prove difficult on all five sectors given the aim of the TPP alliance is trade liberalization. All 12 TPP member nations have their own complicated mixture of interests, so Japan will have to accept compromises at some point and may even team with the United States in the future to demand Malaysia open some of its markets.”
Security and defense also featured in the Malaysian leg of Abe’s trip. The Japanese leader expressed his wish to see ASEAN play a “central role” in solving the territorial dispute between countries bordering the South China Sea. Abe was quoted as having told Prime Minister Najib that “all the countries concerned should adhere to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other relevant international laws, including refraining from taking unilateral action, and should make clear the international law on which claims are based.”
This last sentence is a thinly-disguised reference to the Philippines’ international arbitration action against China under UNCLOS. Since Beijing had opted out of compulsory arbitration concerning maritime borders, Manila was careful to frame the action with reference not to maritime limits themselves but to the manner in which rights under the Convention were exercised. Central to this is a demand that Beijing’s “Nine-Dash Line” be declared contrary to UNCLOS as not falling within any recognized concept in international law.
News of Abe’s trip to Southeast Asia was, of course, closely watched by Chinese observers as well, and it prompted a piece in the Global Times by Wang Xiaonan, based on an interview with Wang Ping, a research fellow at the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. After describing the extensive postwar political and economic links between Tokyo and Southeast Asia, the article denounced Washington’s “indispensable role in coordinating efforts made by Japan and the Philippines in advancing territorial disputes with China” and accused the United States of “utilizing these two troublemakers to pursue its interests in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.” After warning that, in the future, “Japan may have a tendency to gradually break away from toeing a US line and may even develop nuclear weapons,” the piece criticized the Abe administration for its “tough remarks and actions… intending to rein in China.” The article’s recommendation for the Japanese leader was to “resume close ties with China instead,” taking into account “the economic, political, and cultural interests of his nation.”
We can see how the LDP’s victory allowed Abe to consolidate his political stature at home and abroad, leading to advances in Japan’s economic and security goals.
Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona.