Japan’s newly-minted Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has completed his inaugural state visits this week.
They were to Indonesia and Vietnam, a non-traditional choice for Japanese leaders who have historically made Washington their first visit.
In Hanoi, Mr Suga clinched a defence export deal — only the second for Japan since an export ban was lifted in 2014 — while in Jakarta, he pledged a 50 billion yen ($670 million) low-interest loan to assist the country with the COVID-19 economic fallout.
It was also reported that Japan and Indonesia sped up talks to land a similar defence export deal.
This comes as numerous Asian countries face pressure from an increasingly assertive China, which is most keenly felt in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s territorial claims cut through a swathe of overlapping claims among South-East Asian nations.
It’s something that Mr Suga noted in both Hanoi and Jakarta, repeating Japan’s aim for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. It echoes the foreign policy agenda of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who significantly raised Japan’s political presence globally.
Following his visits, there has been considerable commentary about what Japan’s intentions are in South-East Asia, with some coming to the conclusion that this amounts to a containment of China.
But to what extent are these conclusions true? And what implications will closer Japanese ties to South-East Asia mean for the region?
Are we seeing Japan’s containment of China?
There’s no definitive answer to this.
Yuki Tatsumi, a senior fellow and director of the Japan program at US security think-tank the Stimson Centre, told the ABC Mr Suga’s recent visits and deal with Vietnam represents Tokyo’s policy “evolution” in the Indo-Pacific.
“This is not a new trajectory. Rather, this is very much consistent with their ongoing efforts with South-East Asian countries to help these countries enhance their capability to fend off assertive behaviour by China in THE South China Sea,” Ms Tatsumi said.
“[Mr Suga] choosing Vietnam and Indonesia signals the importance he attaches to South-East Asia for his foreign policy agenda.”
For Sue Thompson, an expert in South-East Asia’s regional cooperation at the Australian National University’s (ANU) National Security College, even the use of the term “containment” with Japan’s recent visits should be viewed critically.
“It’s such an old Cold War term, which leads a lot of people to ask, ‘Are we in a new Cold War or not?’ — I don’t think we are,” Dr Thompson said.
Instead, she said Japan isn’t involved in “containment”, but simply “trying to establish itself, security-wise, and economically” to reduce its economic dependence on China.
Many countries, including Japan, remain economically dependent on China both as an export market and source of manufacturing labour for large national companies such as Sony or Toyota.
In July, a report from global consultancy firm McKinsey found that South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam were particularly dependent on China for economic survival.
Cumulatively, Dr Thompson said Japan provides other states similarly dependent on China with an alternative trade source, as well as giving smaller states a chance to avoid getting drawn into a US-China binary.
But for David Envall, a Japan specialist and expert in Asia-Pacific security at the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, the subject of Japan’s recent moves are “clearly addressed at China”.
“The proposed deals are part of Japan’s strategy of regional ‘capacity building’, which covers not only arms exports but also infrastructure, aid, and other trade projects,” he said.
“By boosting connections to the countries of South-East Asia in this way, Tokyo hopes to better counter China’s influence in the region.”
What has been China’s reaction?
Disapproving, as you might expect.
A report by Chinese state-owned tabloid Global Times cited Da Zhingang, North-East Asia specialist at China’s Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, as saying Japan’s defence agreement with Vietnam and Indonesia would “cast a shadow over regional stability and peace” in the South China Sea.
Mr Da also claimed that Mr Suga’s visits exposed Japan’s “trick”, which he said involved getting “more countries to meddle in the South China Sea”.
Beijing has previously accused Tokyo of seeking to build a “mini-NATO” in Asia, which is in reference to the Quad — a military alliance involving India, Australia, Japan and the US.
NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, is a defence alliance involving countries in North America and Europe which binds all members to mutual self-defence.
Prime Minister Suga denied Mr Da’s accusations during his visit to Jakarta, and told reporters Japan’s “response in the South China Sea is not aimed at any one country”.
But Dr Envall said “the growing regional influence of China” was an “underlying theme” of Mr Suga’s visits.
“Although Suga stated in Jakarta that Japan’s position on the South China Sea ‘is not aimed at any one country’, he also repeated the position that Japan opposes any actions in the South China Sea that go against the rule of law or the principle of openness endorsed by ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations],” he said.
Why are the deals significant, and what’s in it for the recipients?
Japan’s defence export sales have only been legal since 2014.
In 1976, the country announced a self-imposed arms export ban — aside from technology sharing with allies — stemming from the country’s post-war constitutional commitment to pacifism.
Since the ban was lifted in 2014, Japan had tried to sell defence craft to Australia and the UK, but without success.
It was only this year that Japan secured its first defence export deal, with the Philippines, followed by an agreement with Vietnam this week. Indonesia and Thailand are reportedly next in line.
In late August, Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric signed a $US100 million ($141 million) deal with the Philippines to supply four radar systems.
In Vietnam, official details of the deal are scant. Japanese news agency Kyodo News reported patrol vessels and maritime safety equipment were part of Japan’s offering, according to Japanese officials.
But the deal isn’t the first time that Hanoi has received defence goods from Japan.
In early August, Japan’s aid agency offered Vietnam a 36.6 billion yen ($492.4 billion) loan to purchase six Japanese maritime patrol boats.
Japan’s defence exports, and anticipated export markets, are all with countries it occupied during World War II, which Dr Thompson said was indicative of how much South-East Asia had moved on from fears about Japanese power.
“After the war, when Japan was re-establishing itself economically in South-East Asia, there were major regional concerns about any sort of Japanese economic dominance,” she said.
“Now we have similar fears that China will do what [South-East Asia] was worried about Japan doing back in the 1960s.”
Are the deals related to China’s claims in the South China Sea?
Both Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ defence deals focus on maritime surveillance, which suggests that both countries on either side of the South China Sea are concerned about what may happen in it.
In recent years, China has ramped up its annexation of its disputed claims, which has involved the construction of artificial islands on low-lying coral reefs, as well as the construction of a prefecture-level city, Sansha.
Chinese vessels have also rammed and sunk Philippine and Vietnamese ships in the sea.
In 2016, The Hague found that China’s claims had “no legal basis”, a landmark ruling which Beijing later dismissed.
China boycotted the hearings and one official accused the judges of corruption to reach the verdict.
While Indonesia has been historically neutral in regional conflicts, it has also pushed back against Chinese encroachment in Indonesia’s portions of the South China Sea.
A slither of Indonesian maritime claims clash with China’s vast claims in the South China Sea, though Jakarta is not a formal claimant in the dispute.
This regional context was not lost on Mr Suga during a speech to Hanoi’s Vietnam-Japan University this week.
“Unfortunately, in this region, developments contrary to the rule of law and openness upheld by the ASEAN Outlook have been unfolding in the South China Sea,” he said.
What do Japan’s ties to South-East Asia mean for the region?
Small Asian states such as Singapore have also previously raised the importance of strengthening multilateralism as the US-China rivalry grows in intensity.
Hikmahanto Juwana, an international law expert at Indonesia’s Jenderal Achmad Yani University, told the ABC that Tokyo ties gave Jakarta a chance to show that it won’t easily be overwhelmed in a great power rivalry.
“America, Australia, Japan and other countries see a tendency for Indonesia to fall into the trap of China through their economic relationship,” Dr Juwana said.
“[But] by welcoming Japan, Indonesia also wants to show the world that Indonesia remains neutral and send a clear message that it is not under China’s shadow.”
This is something that Indonesian President Joko Widodo alluded to in a joint press conference with Mr Suga this week.
“I emphasised the importance of the spirit of cooperation to be strengthened, especially amidst the increasingly sharp rivalry between the world’s great powers,” he said.
But whether Japan’s involvement in South-East Asia results in de-escalating tensions in the region remains to be seen, and for Dr Thompson, it might aggravate something that was last seen in the Cold War.
“Yes, militaries do modernise, and they do upgrade their equipment,” Dr Thompson said.
“But I think there is some truth to the fact that there is a bit of an arms race outside of just military improvement.
“People are keeping an eye out for what China is doing.”
By Alan Weedon, Erwin Renaldi and Nazli Bahmani