Maritime Engagement Strategies Of Japan And China Towards Southeast Asia: An Indonesian Perspective – Analysis

By Rocky Intan*

With the ascendancy of China, much attention has been given to the geopolitical competition between China and the United States. The dynamics in the former’s rise and the latter’s relative decline have come to be regarded as the most important bilateral relationship of the century.1 Yet, one should not ignore the relationship of China with another major power in the region, Japan. The rise of China is a more urgent matter for Japan due to simple geographical reasons.

Indeed, geopolitical tensions have coloured relations between both countries. Both China and Japan at various times have been eager participants in constructing and engaging the regional security architecture in the Asia Pacific. Both countries have also been at loggerheads, however, over various issues from the visits of Japanese officials to the Yasukuni Shrine to the status of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands.

Southeast Asia is one of the prime arenas of geopolitical competition between Japan and China. As both countries border the region in the maritime domain, the salience of the seas in strategic and economic terms must be underlined. This competition might be observed in their respective maritime strategies in the region, specifically towards ASEAN.

Indonesia is the largest archipelagic country in the world and it possesses the largest maritime territory within Southeast Asia. It also has the largest population in ASEAN and is one of the founding members of the Association. There is little doubt of the importance of Indonesia as a maritime country in the region and an influential member of ASEAN.

The aim of this article is to provide perspectives from Indonesia on the maritime strategies of Japan and China towards ASEAN. It shall elaborate on how Japan and China respectively engage ASEAN in the maritime arena. It shall then explain the interests of Indonesia as a maritime country within ASEAN and middle power in the region, followed by how it views the engagement from Japan and China. The article closes with several policy recommendations on how Japan and China can improve their maritime relations with ASEAN.

Japan’s engagement of Southeast Asia

Japan has been an eager participant in regional security initiatives. First, the Cold War’s end gave an impetus for Japan to be less U.S.-centric in its regional security policy, thus providing it space to strengthen relations with Southeast Asian countries. Second, the ascendancy of China and the consequent competition provided more strategic reason for Japan to reinforce engagement with ASEAN. The case for this is perhaps further strengthened with the recent perceived assertive behaviour of China. Third, a more active Japan in the regional security architecture is only natural for a country that relies heavily on the import of primary commodities and consequently the safety of the regional sea commons. In this regard, Japan has been working to enhance safe passage at sea. For example, it was instrumental in the establishment of the multilateral Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) in 2006.2

In its approach, Japan has favoured a multilateral approach in its maritime strategy towards ASEAN. Its participation in various ASEAN-centric regional security initiatives such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Maritime Forum underlies its implicit support for ASEAN centrality. Japan has also advocated a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the region. This does not, however, underscore the bilateral maritime relations of Japan and ASEAN countries.

In its technical assistance, Japan has focused on building up the maritime capacity of ASEAN countries. It has provided billions of dollars in aid and training in the maritime arena for ASEAN countries, especially states bordering critical junctures like the Malacca Strait and the littoral states bordering the South China Sea. The former relates to Japan’s interest in maintaining the security of regional commons—its maritime technical assistance to Indonesia is an example—while the latter is reflected in Japan’s assistance to the ASEAN littoral states embroiled in territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea.3 This is exemplified by its provision of patrol vessels to Vietnam and the Philippines.4

China’s engagement of Southeast Asia

In its participation within the regional security framework, China has been actively seeking to integrate itself into the ASEAN-centred architecture. This has been part of its strategy to assure the world, especially neighbouring countries, that its rise is peaceful. So far, the most pronounced manifestation of China’s willingness to integrate itself in the regional security architecture in the maritime arena has been its signing of the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.5 In light of recent perceived assertiveness of China in its maritime territorial disputes, it remains to be seen how China’s effort to integrate regionally is being perceived by its neighbours.

Although integration into the regional architecture is multilateral by nature, China has displayed a preference for a bilateral approach in dealing with ASEAN countries on maritime issues. In the negotiations on the South China Sea territorial disputes, China has always preferred to negotiate bilaterally with littoral states rather than with ASEAN collectively. In 2013, China rejected the multilateral path in resolving competing claims over the South China Sea. It argued that ASEAN does not have a direct role in the disagreements and the issue should be dealt with countries directly involved.6 It needs to be noted that this bilateral tendency mainly concerns the Chinese approach in resolving its maritime disputes. To its credit, China has also shown willingness to manage the issue multilaterally with its maritime neighbours in the south.

China has provided technical assistance to Southeast Asian countries both at the multilateral and bilateral levels. Although this assistance might not be as extensive as Japan’s, China seems willing to further expand it. Multilaterally, China has contributed 3 billion Yuan for the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund in 2012.7 Bilaterally, it has been cooperating with Vietnam on maritime search and rescue operations since 2003.8 In addition, China has recently come up with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, promising to assist in building the regional port capacity of partner countries.9

The view from Indonesia

This section will attempt to explain Indonesia’s interests as a maritime country within ASEAN and a middle power in the region. It will then explain how these interests are compatible with the maritime approaches of Japan and China.

As a maritime country in ASEAN, the foremost interests of Indonesia in this area are freedom of navigation at sea and integrity of its maritime territory. Related to this, the two most prominent maritime issues for Indonesia are crimes at sea and management of sea resources.10 As such, technical assistance in combatting piracy and peaceful resolution of maritime disputes are in line with the country’s stance. In this regard, technical assistance from Japan and China are much welcomed in Indonesia, although the latter’s cooperation in resolving South China Sea disputes is further called for.

As a middle power in the region, Indonesia has long championed multilateralism. First, Indonesia has been seeking to integrate more actors into the regional security architecture as a multilateral setting will allow it to punch above its weight. Second, the “strategic ambiguity” in the region with the rise of China makes hedging through multilateralism a sound strategy.11 Although cooperation between the two countries has been growing, Indonesia still has misgivings about the benevolent ascendancy of China. This might be further reinforced by China’s recent perceived assertiveness. In this regard, Tokyo’s tendency for multilateralism is applauded while Beijing’s preference for a bilateral approach in its territorial disputes resolution is not preferred from Jakarta’s standpoint—although its recent initiatives and integration in the regional security architecture are much welcomed.

Conclusion and recommendations

The competition between Japan and China might not be apparent within their respective maritime engagement strategies with ASEAN. Their differing approaches towards ASEAN, however, might provide insights on their power positions in the region. Although tensions abound, there is plenty of room for further engagement and opportunity for cooperation in the trilateral relationship of China, Japan and ASEAN.

As a middle power in Southeast Asia and prominent member of ASEAN, it is only natural for Indonesia to advocate a multilateral approach in dealing with powers in the wider Asia Pacific. In return, it also expects those powers to follow a similar approach in order to ensure peace and prosperity in the region.

Going beyond simply advocating a multilateral approach might be needed, however, given the fierce competition between China and Japan.

Indonesia welcomes further technical assistance from both China and Japan towards ASEAN and its members. The collective interests of Japan, China and Indonesia in maintaining the stability of regional commons can be assisted by further technical assistance for ASEAN and its members in combatting piracy. ReCAAP has been an exemplary programme in this regard. Multilateral initiatives by both countries are warmly welcomed by Indonesia. China’s initiative on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is also applauded. Indonesia invites both China and Japan to further integrate into the regional security architecture and advocates for both countries to utilise the multilateral approach in resolving disputes for the betterment of all parties involved.

About the author:
* Mr Rocky Intan is a researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia.

This article was published by RSIS in its December 2014 Policy Report, IMPACT OF THE SINO-JAPANESE COMPETITIVE RELATIONSHIP ON ASEAN AS A REGION AND INSTITUTION (PDF), in pages 15-18.

1. Ying-jia Huang, “Ambassador Clark Randt on ‘the Crucial Relationship’,” USC US-China Institute, April 30, 2010, (X(1)A(0J4XabT9zwEkAAAAOTM3OTIwN2ItZmU4My00OWExLWIzYzMtM2I5ZjkzZTI4MTBl8_xMz4Gce9VSueFNsPokFsYhqlY1) S(echckdvv5hn00i55pbonfr45))/ShowArticle.aspx?articleID=1021&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1x.
2. Nguyen Hung Son, “ASEAN-Japan Strategic Partnership in Southeast Asia: Maritime Security and Cooperation,” in Beyond 2015: ASEAN-Japan Strategic Partnership for Democracy, Peace, and Prosperity in Southeast Asia, eds. Rizal Sukma and Yoshihide Soeya (New York: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2013), 214-227,
3. Ibid.
4. Nikkei Asian Review, “Japan, US to help Southeast Asia with maritime security,” April 3, 2014, Policy-Politics/Japan-US-to-help-Southeast-Asia-with-maritime-security.Publish/Download/Seisaku/pdf/120208.pdf.
5. Carlyle A. Thayer, “The Rise of China and Maritime Security in Southeast Asia,” IDE JETRO, 2011,
6. Julian E. Barnes, “China Rejects Multilateral Intervention in South China Sea Disputes,” Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2013,
7. Fox News, “China unveils $474M maritime cooperation fund to ASEAN amid territorial disputes,” October 5, 2012,
8. Zhao Lei. “China pledges maritime cooperation with ASEAN,” China Daily (USA), November 1, 2011,
9. Zhong Nan, “New Maritime Silk Road to Promote Ties with ASEAN,” China Daily (USA), August 28, 2014,
10. Shafiah F. Muhibat, “Indonesia’s Maritime Security: Ongoing Problems and Strategic Implications,” in Maritime Security and Piracy: Common Challenges and Responses from Europe and Asia, eds. Wilhelm Hofmeister and Patrik Rueppel (Singapore: East Asian Institute), 129-142.
11. Rizal Sukma, “Indonesia’s Response to the Rise of China: Growing Comfort and Uncertainties,” in The Rise of China: Responses from Southeast Asia and Japan, ed. Jun Tsunekawa (Tokyo: The National Institute for Defense Studies, 2009), 139-155, http://www.nids.



RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries.

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