23 April 2019

China, Japan vie for ASEAN affections

Checkbook diplomacy as an instrument of policy between Taiwan and mainland China hasn’t been used in at least five years, but a somewhat similar type of diplomacy is now emerging as China and Japan both seek to win the support of the countries of Southeast Asia.

Shinzo Abe started 2013 with a Southeast Asian visit – his first overseas trip as prime minister – touring Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. By now, the Japanese leader has visited all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Not to be outdone, China’s President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang crisscrossed Southeast Asia in October, visiting five ASEAN states. Xi also took part in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia while Li attended the East Asia Summit in Brunei.

The latest summit diplomacy occurred a week ago as the Southeast Asian leaders gathered in Tokyo as guests of Abe to mark the 40th anniversary of relations between Japan and ASEAN. The get-together was held just weeks after China’s controversial announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone that includes the airspace over the disputed Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands.

Beijing has implied that further such zones are likely, and ASEAN members are concerned that one may be declared in the South China Sea areas claimed by several Southeast Asian countries. Abe reportedly wanted a joint statement with ASEAN that overtly referred to the Chinese zone but the Southeast Asians balked.

Yet, the Japanese leader can point to some progress. There were several noticeable mentions of aviation as well as “air and maritime linkages” in the joint statement. It also said Japan and ASEAN “agreed to enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety.” This is no mean achievement, considering that even Laos and Cambodia, major recipients of Chinese aid, were willing to accept such terminology.

Not surprisingly, both Japan and China offer sweeteners. Abe offered close to US$20 billion in economic aid and loans to ASEAN members over the next five years. “Together with ASEAN, I want to build the future of Asia where laws, rather than power, rule,” he pointedly said.

Japan also was swift in providing generous disaster relief to the Philippines after parts of that country were devastated by Haiyan, a powerful typhoon that left more than 6,000 dead and one-third that number missing.

Japan, like the United States, immediately sent troops to the Philippines to help and offered US$10 million in aid, an amount later increased to US$30 million. China initially pledged only US$100,000 but, after widespread criticism, added US$1.6 million in supplies and sent a navy hospital ship.

China and the Philippines are embroiled in territorial disputes and Manila took its case early this year to the arbitration tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China refuses to cooperate in the judicial procedure and insists on bilateral negotiations with the Philippines.

While in 2009 Japan was ASEAN’s biggest trading partner, it has since been replaced by China, now the world’s second largest economy. But Japan is still a major economic player and accounts for 11 percent of ASEAN trade, two percentage points behind China.

Beijing is trying to lock in its advantage and has proposed raising overall trade to US$1 trillion by 2020, a substantial advance over the previous target of US$500 billion in 2015.

Japan, which has a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea, is seeking diplomatic support from ASEAN, four of whose members have similar disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.

However, the Southeast Asian countries are in no position to join forces with Japan against China, though they are willing to partner economically with both. After all, they need both China and Japan for their economic well-being and don’t want to be put in the position of having to choose. By and large, they look to the United States to provide security in the region.

In the last year, Abe has made clear his intention to strengthen Japan militarily. The defense white paper named China and North Korea as Japan’s primary threats, a claim to which China strenuously objects.

Given that, it is remarkable that the joint statement declared, “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe elaborated his security policy … The ASEAN leaders looked forward to Japan’s efforts in contributing constructively to peace, stability, and development in the region.”

The countries of Southeast Asia, it seems, are creating space for themselves in maneuvering between the world’s giants and, in the process, benefiting from the economic largesse being dispensed.



Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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