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Japan Prime Minister Signals Assertive Asian Security Role at Shangri-La Dialogue 2014: Analysis

Paper No. 5715                                         Dated 02-Jun-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

 Japanese Prime Minister Abe in his keynote Address on May 31 2014 at the Shangri-La Dialogue signalled Japan’s intentions to play an assertive role Asian security role. Implicitly, the target was China though not so named.

The all-pervasive theme at Shangri-La Dialogue was strategic concerns over China’s destabilising the South China Sea region and its recent provocative actions against Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Indo Pacific region is at strategic cross-roads with the United States not going beyond rhetoric on South China Sea and East China Sea conflict escalation by China. Similarly, Russia as an equal stakeholder in security of the region is a passive spectator as China goes on an imperial rampage recklessly trampling all international laws, conventions and refusing to submit to conflict resolution processes.

Against this contextual backdrop, one has been recommending in my past Papers that Asian strategic coalitions must emerge to make a beginning in the direction of ensuring peace and stability of the Indo Pacific region. In a recent Paper one had advocated the imperatives for “Japan-India –Vietnam Strategic Trilateral”.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s assertions at Shangri-La Dialogue 2014 therefore are timely and welcome as Japan along with India are ‘pivots’ on which an Asian Coalition’ can emerge.

Japan’s Intentions to Adopt a New and Assertive Security Role to Preserve Peace and Stability in Asia

“The “New Japanese” are Japanese who are determined ultimately to take on the peace, order and stability of the region as their own responsibility” so declared PM Shinzo Abe. It is a pointer towards the imperatives of an indigenous Asian Strategic Coalition which could provide some semblance of countervailing power against China’s hegemonistic designs in Asia conscious of the strategic dithering that the United States and Russia display when it comes to China.

“Japan intends to play an even greater more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain.” This is an emphatic declaration worth noting as there are many connotations attached to it.

“Proactive Contribution to Peace”- a new banner for such a “New Japan” – is nothing new other than an expression of Japan’s determination to spare no effort or trouble for the sake of peace, security, and prosperity of Asia and the Pacific, at even greater levels than before.” Peace and prosperity cannot come about when there is no security or security and stability are threatened. Evidently, the Japanese PM was signalling that Japan is ready to contribute significantly in the security of Asia so that peace prevails.

Japan will “Reconstruct the legal basis pertinent to the right of collective self-defence and international cooperation.” Japan has a bilateral security alliance with the United States and presumably the Japanese Prime Minister perceives a multilateral Asian security cooperative construct. PM Abe is already engaged in efforts to remove the many shackles that the post -Second World US -imposed Peace Constitution restricts Japan from assuming a rightful and assertive role in Asian security.

Japan Perceives India as a Credible Strategic Partner in Asian Security

In a markedly direct reference to the hopes pinned by PM Shinzo Abe on India and more specifically on new Indian PM Modi stated that “I am absolutely certain that when I welcome Prime Minister Modi to Tokyo, we will successfully confirm that Japan-India cooperation, as well as trilateral cooperation including our two countries will make the “Confluence of the Two Seas” that is the Pacific and Indian Oceans more peaceful and prosperous.

Stressing further on this aspect PM Abe stated that “Today the benefits for each one of us lie in the seas from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean being made thoroughly open as a place for freedom and peace.”

Both of these assertions by PM Shinzo Abe are strategically meaningful. Japan intends to play an assertive role in Asian security and contextually it cannot do so alone. Both Japan and India are emerging powers whose rise China wants to obstruct as it does not wish to share the Asian strategic space driven by its imperial pretentions.

Japan and India share a common perception on the ‘China Threat’ and both are welcome by Asian counties as responsible stakeholders in Asian Security.

India needs to respond positively and substantially to reinforce the Japan-India Strategic Partnership so that it paves the way for a meaningful Asian Strategic Coalition. PM Modi has the political will and courage to do the same.

Regarding the references to the peace and stability in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Japanese Prime Minister had two objectives in mind. The first objective is that Japan perceives the Indo Pacific as an integrated strategic construct and hence Japan and India playing complimentary strategic roles in the security of these two vital Oceans.

The second objective is an implicit reference to China’s destabilising role in both Oceans and particularly in the South China Sea where Japan perceives that in the ambit of India’s Look East Policy, a more assertive role should be played by India in the security and stability of the South China Sea.

Japanese Prime Minister’s Declarations on ASEAN Security and its Regional Role

Japan today stands seriously concerned over China’s provocative brinkmanship in the South China Sea in whose security and stability Japan has a significant national security stake. The ASEAN nations around the South China Sea are disproportionately less powerful than China and therefore vulnerable to China’s political and military coercion.

With the above in mind, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe made a few unambiguous assertions in his Keynote Address, the more significant ones reproduced below:

  • “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 skies and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of overflights.”
  • Reiterating once again in the latter part of his Address, the Japanese PM stressed once again for effect that “Japan will offer its support for efforts by ASEAN member states to ensure safety of seas and skies and vigorously maintain freedom of navigation and overflights.”

The references to China are implicit when Japan’s support to ASEAN nations come for special mention in vigorously maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflights both threatened by China’s unilateral measures.

This is the first time one has noticed references to ‘safety of skies’ and’ maintenance of freedom of overflights’. This has arisen from China’s unilateral declaration of ADIZ in the Senkaku Islands area and it is feared that China will declare a similar ADZ in the South China Sea region.

Japan should take the lead with its political and economic clout to bring about ‘ASEAN Unity’ so that it could provide a credible response against South China Sea conflict escalation.

Japan’s Support for Philippines and Vietnam in their Conflicts with China in the South China Sea

The Philippines and Vietnam are located on the two flanks of the South China Sea and which China has embroiled them in sovereignty disputes involving armed clashes. It is but natural that Japan should strongly support both these nations as they battle against Chinese military coercion in the South China Sea.

Referring to both these nations in his Keynote Address, the Japanese Prime Minister stated that:

  • “My Government strongly supports the efforts made by the Philippines calling for the resolution to the dispute on the South China Sea that is truly consistent with the principles”
  • “We likewise support Vietnam in its efforts to resolve issues through dialogue.

Underlying these ostensibly simple statements is the Japanese intention to support both the Philippines and Vietnam in a more comprehensive manner to build up their economic and military capacities to withstand Chinese provocative military actions.

Adding substance to the above was the reference made by Japanese Prime Minister to supply of 10 new patrol vessels to the Philippines, three to Indonesia and many more to Vietnam once it separates and establishes a separate Coast Guard.

The Japanese PM alluded to the enlargement to provide comprehensive security to the South China Sea littoral countries drawn into conflict by China when he asserted that “Japan will combine various options in its menu, including ODA, capacity-building by the SDF, and defence equipment and technology cooperation to support seamlessly the capacity of ASEAN countries to safeguard the seas”

Rules of Laws of the Seas and Imperatives of Upholding Them

The Japanese Prime Minister dwelt on in fair detail on the rules of the Laws of the Sea and the imperatives of upholding them. This was a direct reference to China which is always in default on this count in its disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea.

The Japanese PM delineated three principles in an apparent reference to China’s heavy-handedness in South China Sea conflicts focussing on the imperatives of their claims as per international laws, avoiding the use of force and coercion and settling disputes through dialogues.

In this connection he implicitly called on China to honour the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Seas and desist from unilateral actions.

Concluding Overall Observations

Japan seems to have been strategically pushed into a corner by China by its unremitting conflict escalation both in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

The assertions made by Japanese PM Abe in his Keynote Address at Singapore while not naming China directly contained implicit references to China’s destabilising provocations in the South China Sea region and reflected the extreme “strategic distrust” of China by the countries of the Indo Pacific region.

Analytically, it can be read that with the Japanese PM pulled no punches on China’s such behaviour and politically signalled that Japan would stand up squarely to face China in its attempts to establish hegemony in the region.

Japan can expect considerable support from Asian nations in this direction. There is a widespread palpable strategic concern in the Indo Pacific of a looming China Threat.

India needs to invest sizeably in its Strategic Partnership with Japan  which stands recommended in an earlier Paper of mine on the imperatives of a Japan-India-Vietnam Strategic Trilateral.