By Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra*
In Japan’s annual Defence White Paper released on 26 September, China’s growing military might has been given priority over North Korea’s belligerence as the country’s main security threat. This is the first time Japan has so explicitly identified China as a security threat greater than North Korea. This article looks at how this document clarifies Japan’s determination to not only contest China in the Western Pacific and the East China Sea (ECS), but also increase its footprint in Southeast Asia.
Japan’s threat assessment derives from a range of factors. One is China’s deployment of “air and sea assets in the Western Pacific and through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan with greater frequency.” China has also been noted to be revisionist in the South China Sea (SCS). Further, the document shows Japan’s acknowledgement of the deep strides it still has left to make with regard to defence and foreign policy in the region as compared to China.
Despite raising defence expenditure by 10 per cent in the past seven years, and buying more US-made stealth fighters and other advanced weapons, Japan is still nowhere close to China’s US$ 177 billion defence budget. China spends almost three times more than Japan on its security. Further, China has also offered huge economic allurements to countries in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As per an Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimate, Southeast Asia would need around investments of around US$ 210 billion per annum in infrastructure to sustain the region’s present growth trajectory from 2016 to 2030, which makes BRI incentives difficult to turn down.
Unlike Japan’s growing strategic proximity with India and Australia and alliance with the US, its overtures towards Southeast Asia are not accorded as much coverage. However, there are nuances in this big picture narrative that play to Japan’s interests, and the latest defence document shows that it has been working quietly but consistently to engage in Southeast Asia.
Japan’s approach to Southeast Asia is two-pronged. First, it has undertaken greater engagement by sending, on a frequent basis, Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF) and its ships throughout the region. It also conducts bilateral and multilateral exercises with its partner countries. It has donated multiple patrol boats, maritime surveillance aircraft, and helicopter spare parts to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
Japan’s premise is that if it is able to help buttress their maritime capacity, these countries could play a vital role in the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is intended to address an ‘assertive’ China as well as ensure a ‘free and open’ SCS. After all, 80 percent of Japan’s oil supply and 70 percent of its trade pass through these waters. Perhaps in an attempt to camouflage much of this security assistance, Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JAICA) and the Japanese Coast Guard use Overseas Development Assistance programmes to provide support, with very few directly routed through the Ministry of Defence.
Second, Japan is interested in further enhancing economic and developmental assistance to the region. It is interesting to note that despite a lot noise about BRI, Japan is still ahead of China in terms of its economic assistance Southeast Asian countries. At present, Japanese involvement in various regional projects is worth US$ 367 billion. This is more than Chinese involvement in these projects, which adds up to US$ 255 billion. Japanese assistance is dispersed quite widely across the region, with engagement in Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, with the first three receiving a lion’s share of the assistance. China is engaged in building the East Coast Rail project in Malaysia, and investing in the Philippines’ ‘Build, Build, Build’ infrastructure initiative.
These countries appear to be more at ease with receiving Japanese economic assistance than Chinese because of reports about its ‘debt trap’ diplomacy through BRI, which has been witnessed recently Sri Lanka, Djibouti, and the Maldives. In fact, Japan’s consistent economic support has provided the strategic space to many of these countries to renegotiate terms with China. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, for example, initially cancelled the East Coast Rail Link project with China in August 2018, and revived it only after renegotiation that has resulted in a substantial reduction of costs that Malaysia would have to bear.
Given China’s military might, deep pockets, geographical proximity, and historical-cultural linkages to Southeast Asia, it is going to be a gargantuan task for Japan to pose itself an alternative on an equal footing. At the same time, it is possible for Japan to limit strategic space for China in the region and reduce its options–particularly if this is undertaken in conjunction with the US, India, and Australia.
*Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS.