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Abe’s Pacific Rim Diplomacy (Part I) – Analysis


Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo started the year 2017 with his foreign policy activism by undertaking a six-day tour to four Asia-Pacific nations –the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam in January 2017. Abe’s foreign policy priorities during the year could be to establish a level of understanding with President Donald Trump that helps maintain the existing level of relationship with the US while seeking ways to deepen further. At the time of this writing, it seems Abe’s first meeting with Trump is scheduled for 10 February in Washington. The other area of focus as demonstrated by his four-nation tour could be to seek an increasingly proactive regional diplomacy. It was also aimed at strengthening security cooperation amid China’s rising maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea, thereby addressing to the issue of maritime security.


Trump’s march to the White House has ushered in a plethora of uncertainties around the world, the impact of which in Asia could be huge as the fallout of Trump’s policies could threaten Asian interests compared to elsewhere in the world. The old alliances could feel the heat as Trump starts crafting his new foreign policy as it would take time to readjust to the new demands of the time. Despite Trump demanding that Japan bear more security cost and pay more for American marines in bases around Japan, Prime Minister Abe was the first leader from a major country to travel to the US in November to congratulate Trump and establish relationship early on. Therefore his Asia-Pacific tour amidst uncertainties of US commitments as well as possible shift to a protectionist trade policy should be seen as an attempt to reaffirm “the importance of the U.S. alliance network in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthening coordination with major countries in the region”.

The fact that Trump did mention in his inauguration speech that the US would “reinforce old alliances and form new ones” may be read as reassuring allies in Asia and the Pacific, though his assertion that allies must pay more for US deployments abroad and thus share the security burden is a matter where differences could occur and complicate matters.

The institutional edifice built during the post-War years could be crumbling down during the Trump administration as radical changes, as expected, are being introduced. That would shatter the political confidence on the institutional framework that guaranteed “economic openness” and “economic and political security” throughout the world as Trump’s policies unleashes the spectre of trade war and calls for protectionism. So, there is a deeper disquiet amongst Asian allies as doubts lurk on what the future US economic and security strategies would be.

Amidst uncertainties over Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy rhetoric, Prime Minister Abe undertook the four-nation trip to the Asia-Pacific nations in order to seek common positions across the region and sound that there is merit in early engagement with the new President. There can never be a second opinion in most Asian countries that a possible withdrawal or even downsizing of the US presence from the Asia-Pacific region can have unpredictable consequences, which is why engagement strategy with the US remains imperative.


The main objective of this Pacific Rim sojourn was to strengthen ties in the political, security and economic fields. While the Philippines and Australia are allies of the US, Indonesia is a leading member of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations (AEAN). Vietnam, another member of the grouping is the 2017 chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). APEC gathers Pacific Rim economies including the US.


Abe discussed both bilateral as well as regional/multilateral issues with the leaders of the four countries. Among the regional issues included multilateral free trade pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement from which Trump has pulled the US out, and the region’s maritime security issue. The TPP was led by the outgoing President Barack Obama as a major component of his policy of pushing a strategic rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region and after the US pulls out from it, the other signatories to this pact need to be prepared the consequences and look to alternatives.

The fact that the world’s biggest economy may shift to a protectionist trade policy is a matter of worry. This was a key topic of Abe’s discussion with the leaders of the four nations. The other important regional topic that dominated discussion was their concerns about China’s military build-up and assertiveness in disputed waters of the South China Sea. The fact that China’s sole aircraft carrier sailed into the western Pacific for the first time in December 2016 was another matter of concern. By choosing to visit the four Pacific countries, Abe wanted “to have frank talks with the leaders of respective countries about how to join efforts and how to contribute to regional peace and stability”.

Abe and Duterte

The Philippines was Abe’s first stop followed by Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam in that order. Abe’s talks with the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in June 2016, covered range of issues such as Japan’s cooperation with the Philippines in economic development, the fight against terrorism and infrastructure building among others. While Japan is not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes between China and five other governments, including Vietnam and the Philippines, Japan is concerned about China’s rising military presence in the resource-rich area which is also a busy shipping lane. Abe extended Japan’s cooperation on this common cause. Japan also faces challenges from Beijing related to China’s claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the neighbouring East China Sea.

After briefly meeting with Duterte, Abe moved to Davao, the southern Philippine city where Duterte long served as mayor, the same day to hold another round of detailed talks at the President’s private residence. Both agreed on economic and security cooperation amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region. The two leaders discussed the issue of China’s military build-up in the South China Sea and vowed to resolve disputes under the rule of law. The symbolism of choosing Davao for the meeting cannot be missed as this island city is also home to many Filipinos of Japanese descent. The city is also recipient of Japanese-funded projects for development. Japan has a consular office there too. Interestingly, China is also seeking to increase its presence in the area and expressed the wish to Duterte to open a diplomatic mission in the city when the Filipino leader visited China in October 2016.

The Philippines has conflicting claims with China in the disputed waters, along with four other countries. Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III fiercely confronted China and highlighted cooperation with Japan and the US. She had approached the UN-backed tribunal at The Hague for arbitration, which concluded in its ruling of 12 July 2016 that China’s claim over the entire South China Sea has no legal basis. Though China rejected outright, Duterte during his October visit to China suggested setting aside the territorial dispute in favour of boosting economic cooperation with China. Abe urged Duterte to respect the tribunal’s verdict. It is necessary to co-opt Duterte on regional issues as The Philippines as chair of ASEAN in 2017 can have important influence to uphold the principle of the law of the sea at a series of ASEAN-related meetings.

Earlier when Obama had criticised Duterte’s war on drugs, including on human rights violations, he had foulmouthed and used objectionable language on Obama and had threatened to cut off ties with the US. It had become difficult to strengthen cooperation between Japan, the US and the Philippines. After sharing views with Abe, both leaders agreed that continued US commitment to the Asia-Pacific region is in the interest of the region.

Trump in the White House has dramatically seemed to have altered the scenario. While Abe hopes to keep the existing ties on track, the fact that President-elect Trump and Duterte earlier spoke on phone with the latter having an invitation for a cup of tea with the former either in New York or in Washington, Abe was happy to hear Duterte making favourable comments about Trump. This presented Abe with a good opportunity to make a fresh start towards building a cooperative relationship between Japan, the US and the Philippines.

While Trump has not determined exactly what his Asia policy would be, China is expected to remain prepared to face if there are serious policy reversals in Trump’s announcements that would be against its interests and respond appropriately. On his part, Duterte was willing to junk the tribunal’s verdict in return of massive economic assistance from China. Duterte might not hesitate to play China over Japan or vice versa if it suits his country’s interests. For the time being, a dramatic U-turn in Duterte’s China policy is unlikely. Abe seemed to have succeeded in restoring some confidence on the Philippines’ relations with the US and so keep Duterte on board in common platform on regional issues.

The import of Abe’s engagement with Duterte stems from his judgment that Manila can have a decisive voice during its tenure in the capacity of being the chair of the ASEAN in 2017 on the South China Sea issue in a series of multilateral meetings, including the East Asia Summit (EAS). Abe hopes that by hyping the South China Sea issue, China can be put through more pressure in the Asia Pacific region and the international community to see reason in his policy stance. Abe would hope to acquire more leverage to counter Beijing in the East China Sea and have his combat plan ready by March 2018 to deal with any contingency. Abe could also expect to strengthen US-Japan alliance if a conflict erupts over the South China Sea issue as China’s attention would have been diverted somewhat from the Senkaku Islands dispute in the East China Sea. If tensions brew further in the South China Sea, it would be easy for Abe to accelerate the transformation of his intended national security strategy and help it become a justified military power. In this situation, it would be easy for Abe to sell his idea to his domestic constituency which still remains fiercely opposed to any militaristic posture for the country.

Yet, it is too premature to understand Duterte’s future stance on South China Sea. ASEAN’s celebration of the 50th birthday is scheduled sometime in August 2017 and it is to be seen if Manila’s position on the South China Sea is now at variance with Duterte’s earlier pronouncement that sought economic cooperation with China in favour than harping on the tribunal’s verdict. The ideal outcome would be if the leaders can come out with an agreed statement to craft a framework for a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. To do so, a great deal of political mutual trust among parties involved is necessary and there is no guarantee at the moment that it is secured. Even Vietnam does not want a conflict with China. During his visit to China in December 2016, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee even expressed the desirability of inter-party diplomacy as the means to deepen Vietnam-China relations.

In yet another twist to the Philippines’ diplomacy, Manila protested Beijing’s recent activity in South China Sea, with Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana calling China’s installation of weapons on artificial islands in the disputed area as “very troubling and is at variance with Chinese government’s claims its purpose is “peaceful and friendly”. This was a rather stronger statement than what Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay had earlier said that “the issue had to be handled carefully”. It may be noted that the Mischief Reef, one of the islands where China has modern weapons, is located within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, and the Philippines’ reaction was in this context.

In order to deepen economic relations, Abe pledged a public-private package of 1 trillion yen ($8.7 billion) to spur infrastructure development in the fast-growing Southeast Asian country over five years, including for promoting agricultural business in Mindanao. Abe also offered assistance for countermeasures against illegal drugs and maritime security. Abe’s objective is to strengthen strategic ties with the key nation in the Asia Pacific region amid China’s growing presence. Abe was the first foreign head of government to visit the country since Duterte took power in June 2016 and met Duterte for the third time.

Earlier, when Duterte visited Japan in October 2016, Japan had agreed to provide high-speed boats to the Philippines Coast Guard in a bid to enhance maritime security. Accordingly, a number of agreements were signed and documents exchanged, including a grant of 600 million yen ($5 million) for boats and other counterterrorism equipment for the Coast Guard. This time, Abe agreed to aid flood prevention work in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Duterte’s home state. It is believed that Abe also offered to provide Manila with a missile but was declined by Duterte, claiming that he does not want to see a World War III. This report, however, is unconfirmed.

Abe and Turnbull

Australia was Abe’s second stop in the four-nation swing. Like in the Philippines, trade and security engagements amid concern over China’s emergence as a military power in the Pacific dominated Abe’s agenda. The year 2017 marked the 10th anniversary of Japan-Australia joint declaration on security cooperation. Taking the opportunity, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reiterated Australia’s commitment to advance economic, investment and trade relationship, defence and security cooperation and commitment to a secure and prosperous region. Like in the Philippines, Abe also discussed with his Australian counterpart about China’s increasing control over the disputed South China Sea and how it is directly linked to regional peace and stability and therefore a concern to the entire international community.

Both agreed to resist the rising trend of protectionism and reaffirmed their commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s declaration to withdraw from this pact. As it happened, Trump lost no time to sign an executive order after assuming office, leaving the world in economic turmoil. At the time of writing, the eleven of the 12 original signatory countries are debating their future course of action. Both Japan and Australia are now exchanging opinion how to salvage this pact. Turnbull has opined that “protectionism is a path to poverty”.

While agreeing to work with the Trump administration, both Abe and Turnbull agreed to explore scope for deeper and more sophisticated defence ties as security challenges in the region become more complex. Having Trump threatening a trade war with China, it remains to be seen if both Japan and Australia shall come under pressure from the Trump administration to act as a bulwark to China in the region. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks that the US allies in the region should support the US in its efforts to block China’s access to artificial islands it was building in the South China Sea is seen as an attempt by the Trump administration to draw the allies in a war with China. China has been warning time and again outside powers not to meddle in the region’s disputes, which Beijing wants to be settled through one-on-one negotiations with other rival claimants. But outside powers having no claims on the South China Sea say that “the issue of the South China Sea is linked directly to regional peace and stability and is a concern to the entire international community”.

In view of the above concern, Abe and Turnbull signed a revised bilateral pact to boost logistics cooperation between their defence forces. Japan’s Self-Defence Forces will now be able to supply ammunitions to the Australian military under the revised Japan-Australia acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA). This decision by Abe is in tune with his policy of “proactive pacifism”, characterised by contentious new security legislation expanding SDF’s role in various areas. Though Abe faced criticism at home as it was perceived the new policy eroding the spirit of Japan’s post-War pacifist Constitution, Abe went ahead with the legislation allowing Japan to supply ammunition to foreign defence forces responding to situations deemed to have an “important influence on Japan’s peace and security”. The past version of the ACSA that came into force in January 2013 had excluded provision of weapons and ammunitions. The revised ACSA enabled the SDF and Australian military to share food, fuel and other supplies during UN peacekeeping operations, international relief operations and joint exercises.

Though both leaders agreed that the relationship between the two countries have now become closer, stronger and more constructive than ever, the real challenge lies ahead in the Trump era which is going to witness path-breaking changes that are bound to impact power relations in the coming months. It is unclear how both Japan and Australia will readjust their priorities that would serve both their national interests as well as interests of the partners and the region. Accommodating Trump’s demands and reorienting the trilateral partnership to achieve common goal acceptable to the three stakeholders would be the key challenge, for which there can be no definite answer at the moment. Alternately, how both the leaders can work out alternative strategies to arrest, if not prevent, the downsides unleashed by the Trump administration would be the real future challenge.

See: Part II

The author is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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