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Japan & ASEAN Join Forces to Balance China

Prime Minister Abe Attends Naval Fleet Review

Japan and several ASEAN countries have a common China problem. China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea infringe on claims made by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and others. The same goes for Japan in the East China Sea. So Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent trip to Southeast Asia makes a lot of sense and signifies Japan’s growing interest in its ASEAN neighbors.

Since returning to office late last year, Abe has visited 16 countries, 7 of them ASEAN members. (He has avoided Laos and Cambodia “partly because some of them are too close to China,” an unnamed source close to Abe told the Asahi Shimbun.) Tokyo has been particularly warm in its outreach to the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which are locked in a tense standoff with China over fish- and energy-rich ocean territory in the South China Sea. Last week Abe offered to sell 10 coast guard ships to the Philippines to help strengthen Manila’s coastal defenses. Today a Japanese training vessel carrying a multinational crew of sailors and trainees from Japan, Singapore and the Philippines docked in Vietnam for a 5-day visit. Among other activities, the crew will play a friendly volleyball tournament with the Vietnamese Marine Police.

Japan’s interest in ASEAN countries is not limited to military and political matters. Tokyo invested $60 billion in the ASEAN-5 (the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam) in the past decade, ten times as much as China. Abenomics—Abe’s ongoing economic reforms—have created more attractive incentives for Japanese companies to invest in these countries. And during a meeting between representatives of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and ASEAN leaders earlier this month, the chairman of ASEAN, a Vietnamese politician, vowed to deepen the organization’s economic cooperation with Japan.

Chinese aggression has driven former friends, like Vietnam, in search of new allies. Japan, with similar China problems, is a natural choice. So is the United States. Indeed, US military ties with ASEAN countries are strengthening as well: the Air Force plans to rotate jets and other aircraft through bases in Australia, Singapore, Thailand, India, and possibly the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

[Japanese warships photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Thirdsyphon

    This is the delight of being an offshore balancer: America’s balance-of-power issues in Asia take care of themselves. England successfully played this game against multiple would-be competitors in Europe for hundreds of years, and we seem to have inherited their knack for it.

    • Nick Bidler

      I do wish more Americans would recognize two things:

      1. In favor of intervention, that U.S. ‘foreign adventures’ are often at the requests of others, and
      2. against intervention, that U.S. military and economic power is best deployed to tip scales the way we want them to go, not to force things that weren’t going to happen without outside intervention.

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