Diplomatic Overdrive

Japan trying to upgrade relations with nations without providing space for equal partnerships

Natasha AgarwalNatasha Agarwal

Japan had the world’s attention when the country announced its National Security Strategy. Unsettling some feathers, the strategy is based on an understanding that Japan can be engulfed from threats posed by not only an over-(military)-powering neighbourhood but also from global threats in the form of a deteriorating climate and environment, wildfire-type spread of infectious diseases, and food and energy shortages.

Accordingly, the strategy states that Japan would need to focus not only on building its defence capabilities but also engage its comprehensive national prowess in diplomatic, economic and technological capabilities. While the full potential of Japan’s capabilities cannot be achieved in isolation, the strategy recognises that the country would need to foster partnerships with its allies and other like-minded countries as well as many other countries, international organisations and other relevant partners.

So how is Japan setting itself out to achieve the intentions stated in the country’s newly-minted national security strategy? Japan’s ongoing efforts reflect that the country envisages that the world is made up of two parts.

The first part comprises countries, mainly across the developed world, with whom Japan seeks to enhance and strengthen existing partnerships including newer alliances. For example, Japan and the United States agreed to expand their partnership into areas such as space, cyber and information security. Moreover, both the countries agreed to work in close coordination to enhance defence ties including helping Japan gain counter-strike capabilities. With a traditional deterrence alliance partner in the US, Japan has stepped outside its comfort zone to design a deterrence architecture which would involve other countries so as to facilitate Japan’s quest for self-sufficiency through self-extension. Accordingly, Japan not only has upgraded its relationship with Italy to the status of a “strategic partnership,” but would also launch a bilateral consultant mechanism for foreign and defence policy. Japan has also signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) with the UK. It has also signed a RAA with Australia. These arrangements are in addition to the agreement which Japan finalised with Italy and the UK to develop next generation fighter aircraft by 2035. By going all out, Japan is hoping to form tighter alliances with allies and like-minded countries to form and inform an integrated deterrence strategy to disrupt and defend threats.

The second part comprises countries which (1) encircle those countries which Japan identifies as neighbourhood threats, particularly threats emanating from China, Russia and North Korea; and (2) are also countries comprising the Indo-Pacific region. For these countries, Japan seeks partnerships either through military so as to reinforce interoperability and strengthen defence cooperation, or through non-military such as extending financial and non-financial assistance in the form of e.g., overseas development assistance (ODA) and provision of advanced technological machinery for aiding say infrastructural development.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida


Tighter Alliances

From signing a military logistics Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement with India to joining India in her multilateral defence cooperation such as the Malabar exercise, to conducting the first India-Japan bilateral air drill exercises, it is evident that under Quad or not, Japan is seeking tighter alliances with India, a country perceived to be a global south geo-political competitor to China.

It comes as no surprise that Japan is seeking bilateral military and non-military partnerships with those countries in the South East Asian region that are US allies, treaty-allies in some cases. However, if Japan is thinking that these countries could be natural like-minded ally contender in the South East Asian region given their military ties with the United States, and that by baiting economic development financial and non-financial assistance, Japan can seek deeper security ties with these countries, then Japan is in for an unpleasant surprise.

Let’s take the example of Thailand. Japan signed an agreement with Thailand which would facilitate the transfer of defence hardware and technology from Japan to Thailand. However, Thailand has left no stone unturned in seeking greater bilateral economic relationships with China, expanding logistical connectivity under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, championing China’s role in regional and international affairs, all actions reaffirming “Thailand and China are as close as one family.” In addition, Thailand’s defence cooperation including buying Chinese equipment and technology, joint training and exercises with China, has only strengthened with time. Besides, Thailand is also stretching beyond its allies in the West and the Asian region, and looking to partner with countries which coincidentally have a close relationship with China. For example, in a rare feat, Thailand and Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic ties, and it is no close secret on the growing bilateral ties between China and Saudi Arabia.

A similar trajectory appears to be taking place with the Philippines. In a recently concluded Japan-Philippines meeting, Japan pledged JPY 600 billion by March 2024. The investment will be in the form of public (overseas development assistance) and private finances, directed for Philippines economic development. In the field of maritime security, i.e., enhancing Philippines Coast Guard capacity, Japan has expressed its intention to develop a support base in Subic Bay. Moreover, Japan and the Philippines signed a ‘terms of reference’ for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities, perceived as a harbinger to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries. Despite greater strides with Japan, the Philippines continues to make advancements in its relationships with China even though the relationship ebbs and flows with the tide of the South China Sea, and its developmental needs. For instance, the Philippines and China signed numerous agreements when President Marcos Jr. visited China in early 2023, setting the stage for talks to ease off tensions in the South China Sea. And even though the Philippines expressed dissatisfaction summoning the Chinese envoy to express concerns on what the Philippines perceived as China’s provocative act in the South China sea, Philippines, as a member of the Asean and independently, continue to maintain that maritime disputes in the South China Sea should not solely define Philippines-China relationships and that simmering tensions over the sea should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy instead of coercion and intimidation.

Tapping into resources that go beyond the Quad and US allies, Japan is also hoping that in lieu of lasting upgraded economic partnerships, it will be able to secure deeper military alliances with other countries in the South East Asian region, especially those which have disputes with China over the South China Sea. This was evident in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Indonesia and Vietnam in 2022. Although the hope may not necessarily be all futile, Japan’s outreach efforts, when compared to China, still appear to be too little, too late, and naive at best.

Let’s take Vietnam, for instance. Japan and Vietnam have come together on several defence and security arrangements including (1) an agreement concerning the transfer of Japanese defence equipment and technology to Vietnam; (2) bilateral cooperation agreement on cyber-security; (3) port calls by Japan’s Self Defence Force vessels and aircraft in Vietnam, the latest being the docking of Japan’s Setsu patrol vessel, among others. Moreover, boosting Vietnam-Japan economic relationships, a recent survey found that Vietnam is the top regional target for Japanese businesses expansion and diversification plans. Yet, when it comes to China, Japan’s outreach efforts towards Vietnam appear dismal. And one of the main reasons being Vietnam seeking a shared future with China, politically ideologically, the basis on which the two countries aim to bring their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership to a new level of understanding. With Vietnam’s Chief Nguyen Phu Trong being the first foreign dignitary to visit China and meet the Chinese President Xi Jinping after the conclusion of the 20th CPC National Congress, it is evident that the leaders are looking to consolidate their political clout so as to leverage political influence of both the parties and countries, domestically and internationally. Moreover, 13 cooperative agreements were signed by both the countries during the visit.

A similar path chalks out for Indonesia. For the first time, Japan’s Ground Self Defence Force, along with other countries, took part in a joint airborne training exercise with the Indonesian army in Indonesia. Yet, Indonesia is seeking a shared future with China, where both Chinese and Indonesian traditional values would define Indonesia-China relationships. Moreover, Indonesia seeks deeper economic ties with China.

In fact, it would be safe to assume that countries in the South East Asian region, aware of the power-tug-of-war for a place in the Global South, bait too little while continuing to squeeze the best from what the world has to offer. Looking at Cambodia, Japan upgraded its relationship with Cambodia to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ further bearing fruit to Japan’s intention of continuing to dispatch vessels of Japanese Maritime Self-Defence to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, a base which Cambodians define as being swallowed by China. For the access China has to the Ream Naval Base, Cambodia is giving too little to Japan. In fact, that allowing Japan’s Navy ships to dock at Cambodia’s Ream Naval base can be viewed as ‘taking sides’ driving Cambodia’s allies up the wall, Cambodia’s President was quick to clarify that the Ream Naval base is open to the navies of other countries too, and that the possibility to dock at the navy base could go beyond courtesy visits and include military manoeuvres or training against terrorism. This sentiment is even more evident in the Cambodian President’s recent visit to China where he publicly stated: “If I do not rely on China, who should I rely on?” Building on the iron-clad friendship, Cambodia and China aim for a “diamond hexagon” cooperation framework bringing upon a new era of China-Cambodia community with a shared future.


Lessons for Japan

Domestic demands will sway a country’s bargaining power and position in the dynamically changing global and regional geo-politics. Hence, without getting entangled in geo-political competitions, every nation desires for a space to be heard and seen on the global stage, a space which is mindful to respecting individualistic needs and wants, a space which is supportive of independent decisions and decision-making processes, a space which really is beyond the point of being a pawn in the geo-political competitions. When nations are provided with this essential space on the global high table, a sense of being equal partners ensues thereby promoting an environment wherein nations can choose to self-regulate through co-regulation. Ideologies converge and a co-operative environment is transpired amongst nations, facilitating mutual trust and benefits, opening rooms for dialoguing and negotiations on matters pertaining to themselves directly or indirectly including matters related to global commons issues.

As nations are actively dealing with the complexity of integrating evolving domestic demands in the international space, nations would partner with those that not only provide them with this imperative space on the global platform but also with those partners which provide for an alternative model of growth and development, one where financial and non-financial, military and non-military, collaboration is encouraged while assurance of non-interference in a nation’s domestic affairs is given.

In its current shape and form, Japan’s global outreach efforts reflect Japan’s intention to be the lighthouse for many countries, particularly for those countries in the Indo-Pacific region. While the intention could be to join hands and walk together, actions reflect that the path chosen does not align with that of the stated intentions. However, to be a lighthouse while not giving the space to be heard and seen, can be construed as self-righteousness, driving scepticism amongst nations. Therefore, in its global outreach efforts, it is all the more imperative for Japan to be driving home the message that countries will be given the space to voice their concerns and opinions, and that their concerns and opinions will be heard, and that this space will not largely be influenced by Japan’s alliances across the world, especially that with the US. As a matter of fact, this assurance of space in itself could lay the foundation where countries could willingly come forward to form alliances with Japan.

With India being an indispensable partner in its plan for a free and open Indo-pacific (FOIP) region, Japan perceives that its FOIP vision could serve as a role model for providing a guiding perspective to the global village. However, capitalising on the FOIP vision on the vulnerabilities of vulnerable countries and people in vulnerable environments, Japan negates the very idea of providing space to nurture equal partnerships and promote inclusiveness and openness amongst countries, the very equality amidst diversity it preaches in its new plan for the future of FOIP.

Besides, Japan is missing out on the geo-strategic importance of Asean and PIC (Pacific Island Nations). In other words, Asean and PIC centrality, or rather indispensable partners, should have been the bedrock of Japan’s plan for FOIP.

Japan thinks that Asean’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region resonates with that of Japan’s vision for Asean under FOIP. However, China’s in-roads into Asean through various modalities such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), amongst others, has in turn changed Asean’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which in principle may not necessarily converge with Japan’s new pillars of co-operation for FOIP. To make amendments, Japan can start by upgrading its relationship with Asean to that of a comprehensive strategic partnership at least, bringing Asean on a footing provided to it by other countries such as China in 2021. Upgrading bilateral relationships with some countries in Asean may not necessarily help in directing efforts from Asean as a regional bloc. Japan recognizes that it may not be able to match China’s scale in its offering to Asean. Hence, Japan could, to start with, direct its efforts to the creation of space where Asean’s needs and wants can be heard and seen and then integrate Japan’s offerings with that of Asean’s economic growth and development.

A similar story resonates with PICs wherein by giving PICs an equal footing on the global high table particularly the space to be heard and seen, China has been able to effectively integrate China’s global outreach initiatives such as the BRI, into their economic growth and development, thereby in-roading into the Pacific Island Countries. This integration has in turn changed PICs perspective towards the Pacific region which in principle may not necessarily converge with Japan’s new pillars of co-operation for FOIP.

It is imperative for Japan to recognise that China’s deterrence strategy is to give space to countries to be heard and seen with an assurance that it would not interfere in the domestic affairs of the country in question. When given this space to represent a non-negotiable self-identity and maintain their strategic autonomy, countries feeling comfortable in their skin, independently come forward to collaborate with China giving China the space to be able to integrate its initiatives such as the BRI, Global Development Initiative (GDI), and Global Security Initiative (GSI), among others, with the country’s economic growth and development story, leading to co-creation, an aspiration Japan lays out in its plan for the future of FOIP. By playing catch-up with China, Japan sells short on what it can bring to the table for co-creation.

To conclude, it remains unclear as to what is more worrisome to Japan—is it a potential threat to Japan’s national security which Japan perceives could potentially escalate and spill over from simmering geopolitical tensions, embroiling Japan because of its regional and global stance on matters which Japan does not necessarily agree upon? Or is it worried about the changing global order, an order which does not conform with the values which Japan and its allies uphold, an order which challenges their already established international order? Lack of clarity is being reflected in Japan’s diplomatic efforts which appears to heading in different directions like a headless chicken—from proposing to develop and maintain a free and open international order in its National Security Strategy, which it now perceives can be promulgated through a free and open Indo-pacific region with India as an indispensable partner in the global south; yet arguing that for the FOIP vision to materialise, Japan’s primary focus would be on three important regions namely Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific Islands region, and all other countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, and other regions. Diplomatic efforts can advance on equal footing, a level playing field. Puppeting the US-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of its global outreach efforts is not going to get Japan far in on-boarding countries to help Japan navigate through the troubled waters.

(The writer is an independent researcher whose work can be accessed at https://natashagarwal.com/)



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