Eighty years ago,when Japan first decided to engage militarily with the Southeast Asian countries, it resulted in an arguably ferocious occupation, creating an anti-Japanese sentiment throughout the region, still mounted even decades later. For the second time, however, the military crafts cruising through the South China Sea are welcomed with open arms. Not far in the northeast, a dragon has risen, generating concerns that soon, it will tighten its clutch in the region.
Japanese Military Revival
Japanese military supremacy in Asia came to an end after World War II. The United States, in the capacity of an occupier, helped make sure that it was deprived from aggressive military activity, through imposing a constitution in 1947 that specifically “forbade possession of a military”. Japan, nonetheless, was still permitted to form the Self Defense Force to protect its territory. In addition, the US, through the 1954 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, pledged to provide militaristic support through establishing military bases, most notably in Okinawa.
Some have argued that Japan has violated the mandate by engaging in cross-border military activities, although mainly as an aide to the US. In fact, Japan has developed its Self Defense Force into one of “the most sophisticated armed forces in Asia,” albeit with a spending ceiling of 1% of GDP. At the same time, Japan has not been allowed to possess a full capacity of “offensive weapons” nor do the Japanese citizens feel ready for the increasing military role.
However, things have changed in Asia, including the power dynamics. Although Japan – North Korea relations have long been strained, the leadership transition and recent missile tests in the latter country have made Japan feel further threatened. As a response to the recent threat from North Korea that pinpointed Tokyo as the number 1 target, Japan deployed “missile-defense systems at three sites around Tokyo.”
Then there is the rising power, China, which is also North Korea’s strongest ally. Historical tension has dominantly characterized the two countries’ relations. In recent years, tensions have escalated further because of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute. The Japanese government’s decision to nationalize the island has undoubtedly sparked more tensions between the two countries. In fact, three Chinese maritime surveillance ships were observed around the disputed area on May 5, making it the 42nd of such an incident after the nationalization.
“The Chinese government has termed Japan’s purchase of the islands a “gross violation” of Chinese sovereignty over the territory, and has warned that it will take “necessary measures” to safeguard its interest.”
Southeast Asia and the South China Sea Dispute
Southeast Asia, meanwhile, has emerged not only economically, but also as an indispensable region for Japan and China that is undoubtedly a “decisive territory, on the future of which hangs the outcome of a great contest for influence in Asia.” By and large, the region’s alluring market power of 500 million people has attracted the two big nations to deepen their engagement.
Both China and Japan have increased their economic ties with the Southeast Asian countries. In fact, Japan doubled its foreign direct investment in the region to $19.6 billion in 2011. On the other hand, China-ASEAN trade reached a value of $400.9 billion in 2012, implying that Southeast Asian countries are inherently important trading partners. This growing China-ASEAN trade, however, can potentially be dampened by the ongoing South China Sea dispute.
The development of the South China Sea conflict, as well as the need to counter China’s growing influence, has led Japan to deliver its first military aid after the World War II. In its Japan-US Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee, Japan confirmed that there is a need to use aid “to promote safety in the region…through providing coastal states with patrol boats.” Japan has indeed approved the provision of $2 million for training troops in Timor Leste and Cambodia.
In addition, it has agreed to fulfill the Philippines’ request of 12 patrol vessels to “strengthen the Filipino coast guard,” 10 of which will be provided as part of the official development assistance while two more are given as grants. Although the Japanese government announced that the patrol vessels are merely for maritime safety instead of regional security issues, the Philippines is known as one of the most aggressive claimants of the disputed territory, most notably over the Spratley Islands with China. Aside from the Philippines, Japan has also planned to disburse military aid to Indonesia and Vietnam next year.
The aforementioned military aid that Japan provides is unequivocally a double-edged sword. First, by helping strengthen the military capacity of Southeast Asian countries, particularly the claimants of the South China Sea, Japan is able to divide China’s focus and arguably weaken its grip in the region. China now has to divide its resources to focus on both maritime conflicts in the North and South.
Second, Japan can strengthen its ties with the United States through forging what’s undoubtedly a US agenda of soft-balancing China in Asia. The remark made by the Obama administration, which pointed South Korea as the “linchpin of regional security,” has concerned Japanese policymakers that the US government sees South Korea as a “more dynamic ally.” In addition to the military aid to the Southeast Asian countries, Japan has announced early this year that they will support the US in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a policy central to the US’ “pivot to Asia.”
Although Japan has long disbursed official development assistance in Southeast Asia, the military aid is nonetheless a significant step on the ladder of their aid policy and manifestation of the national interest. Previous aid programs have been centered on technical assistance that promotes a” nuts and bolts on the ground” approach as part of their “low-profile” stance. However, the threats to their power and economic grip have triggered them to step up to the rise of the “increasingly assertive China.”