By Zhao Minghao Source: Global Times Published: 2017-1-19
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just wrapped up his tour to four Asia-Pacific nations - the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam - Thursday. During the six-day trip, he mentioned the South China Sea disputes on many occasions to keep China in check in the name of maritime security. He will head to Washington soon to meet with incoming US President Donald Trump. With Trump about to enter the White House, Tokyo has become increasingly proactive in regional diplomacy, but Beijing is cautious about Japan`s moves.
Abe has proposed to offer more economic assistance and enhance maritime security cooperation during his visit to three Southeast Asian countries. In the next five years, Japan pledged to provide 1 trillion yen ($8.826 billion) to the Philippines, 74 billion yen to Indonesia and 120 billion yen to Vietnam. In addition, it also pledged to provide advanced vehicles including high-speed patrol boats. Abe also offered to provide Manila with a missile but was declined by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who claimed he does not want to see a third world war.
While in Australia, the two countries signed an amendment to the Japan-Australia Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement, further clearing up obstacles against the bilateral military cooperation. According to Abe, he has reached consensus with the Australian side to deepen solid cooperation among Washington, Canberra and Tokyo after Trump assumes office, including the launch of a trilateral military drill by the end of this year.
In addition, Japan and Indonesia will hold the Joint Foreign and Defense Ministerial Consultations this year to discuss transfer of weaponry and technology.
As the rotating chair of ASEAN in 2017, the Philippines will hold a series of ASEAN meetings including the East Asia Summit. In the eyes of Tokyo, if the intractable South China Sea issue can be hyped up at these multilateral meetings, China will definitely face more pressure in the Asia-Pacific region and the international community as well.
There is no doubt that if tensions build in the South China Sea, Tokyo will boast more power in countering Beijing in the East China Sea dispute. Japan has already been making every preparation to deal with any contingency likely to happen around the Diaoyu Islands and working to formulate a joint combat plan by March 2018. In Abe`s calculation, if there is an increasing risk of conflict in the South China Sea, Washington will expand its military presence and investment in the West Pacific and consequently, it will lead to more intervention in the perennial territorial contention. In this way, the US-Japan alliance will be consolidated.
Furthermore, brewing tensions in the South China Sea will provide Japan with an opportunity to flex its military muscle in the Asia-Pacific region, conducive to the goal of the Abe administration to accelerate the transformation of Japan`s national security strategy and help it become a justified military power.
In a jarring contrast to Abe, who has been clamoring about the South China Sea dispute, territory claimants including Manila and Hanoi have shown their willingness to mollify the decades-long wrangle. Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines Perfecto Yasay Jr. said that the South China Sea arbitration case would not be on the agenda of the ASEAN meetings.
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee has just concluded his China trip Sunday, signaling the continuous deepening China-Vietnam relations through inter-party diplomacy.
ASEAN will celebrate its 50th birthday in August, at the critical moment of which both ASEAN and China hope to ease up tensions in the South China Sea in a bid to create favorable conditions for regional economic development. The top priority lies in crafting a framework for a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), which depends on increasing political mutual trust among parties involved. For the first six months of 2017, the COC joint working group will hold three meetings, with the first in February in famed Bali resort.
Trump`s victory is expected to bring about numerous uncertainties to Washington`s foreign policies. In particular, he has indicated the US will exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Abe`s cabinet has put in a lot of political capital to promote the TPP in hope to enable it to play a strategic role in denting Beijing`s regional clout.
Now, given the gloom shrouding the TPP, Abe expects to bolster Japan`s ties with the US through beefing up maritime security cooperation. He will meet with Trump again in Washington at the end of this month and perhaps put more pressure on the new US leader to further contain China with the so-called consensus of his four-nation tour.
However, in actuality, what he does will only intensify the confrontation between Washington and Beijing and add to regional tensions, and end up damaging Asia-Pacific stability.
The author is a visiting fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.