Events of the past two months confirm the previously noted Japanese widespread activation in the South China Sea and in Southeast Asia as a whole. Its aspiration to control this region proved to play a vital role in the both world wars of the last century.
Today the South China Sea is the key and most vulnerable link in the marine trade route starting in the Persian Gulf and passing through the Indian Ocean. Ensuring the smooth functioning of this route becomes a question of life and death for Japan.
This was especially aggravated after the decommissioning of almost all Japanese nuclear power plants, resulting in an increase from 70% to 90% of Japan’s energy dependency on imported hydrocarbons. 90% of them are imported from the Persian Gulf.
However, Chinese influence in the South China Sea and in Southeast Asia is fighting to be the prevailing force in the area, making it Japan’s main source of potential challenges to its national interests. China considers around 80% of the South China Sea’s area to be an integral part of its territory for “historical” reasons.
Therefore, the long-coming, dual sided collision in the East China Sea around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands begins to spread to the South China Sea. There is every reason to assume that this is not the end to Japanese-Chinese escalating rivalry and we will, already in coming years, see this repeating in the Indian Ocean.
Till now Japan’s main tool in dealing with foreign policy issues remains its economy, the third best in the world and, in particular, a set of programs of economic assistance to developing countries called Official Development Assistance (ODA), which is implemented within the Organization for Economic Cooperation.
The documents governing offered assistance under the ODA, directly refer to its use in order to solve problems in the field of security and the national interests of Japan itself. It is important to note that the ODA program is implemented through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country.
The amount of the annual financial support of the Japanese ODA in recent years reached about 15 billion dollars. Whereby, the Southeast Asian region is one of the main recipients of Japanese economic assistance.
A good example of its results was the ground-breaking in April of this year in Cambodia of the vital bridge across the Mekong, with a length of over two kilometers and a cost of 130 million dollars; all at the expense of the Japanese ODA. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called the completion of the construction of this bridge a manifestation of a “long-term friendship between Cambodia and Japan“.
The ODA abbreviation was frequently mentioned in the course of the 7th summit called “Japan and the countries of the Greater Mekong” held in Tokyo on July 4, 2015.
The “Greater Mekong” association includes five countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand) for which effectively utilizing the great river of the Southeast Asian region, as well as maintaining the ecological purity of its basin is crucial.
The Japanese-Chinese struggle for influence in this group of countries (and also in the wider ASEAN association which they are part of) is becoming more obvious, in spite of the periodically held bilateral consultations with the aim of harmonizing efforts in the “Greater Mekong”.
A platform for these consultations is the “Japanese-Chinese political dialogue in the Mekong Region”, the fifth meeting of which was held in early December 2014.
Since the Japanese-Chinese rivalry is resulted in competition raising the quantity and quality of various kinds of infrastructure projects yet (such as the previously mentioned bridge in Cambodia), which are offered for the five countries of the “Greater Mekong”, the latter ones try to get from this their personal gain.
In late December 2014, the Prime Minister of China Li Keqiang took an active part in conducting the next summit of the member states of this association. During the meeting, the Chinese Prime Minister declared the possibility of financing different projects in the five countries for the total amount of 3 billion dollars.
With regard to the summit “Japan and the Greater Mekong countries”, it resulted in the adoption of an elaborated new strategy of bilateral cooperation for the next three years. Whereby, they stated “a full success” of the previous strategy approved in 2012, under which Japan in the framework of the ODA allocated around 6 billion dollars to the member states of the association.
“Greater Mekong” countries appreciate Japan’s role not only in helping in their economic development, but also in “strengthening stability” in Southeast Asia. In the said document a hope is expressed that Japan will continue to productively cooperate in the same way with the countries of the region.
These hopes are particularly based on the next Japan’s commitment to allocate financial assistance through to “Greater Mekong” countries in the next three years within the ODA amounting to about 6.1 billion dollars.
Among the four “cornerstone” directions of further development of bilateral cooperation, the point “Coordination with interested partners” calls attention. Among such main partners they mention the World Bank and especially the Asian Development Bank controlled by Japan, the US and Japan which closely cooperate in the region, , as well as the same “Japanese-Chinese political dialogue in the Mekong region”.
The last summit has once again demonstrated the desire of the most of the five countries to take a politically neutral position in the game between the two leading powers of Asia and not complicate their process of “milking” the main economic and financial donors.
In particular, in the final documents the issue of aggravating situation in the South China Sea due to Chinese construction works on some of the disputed islands located there which is so important for the whole “Greater Mekong” was left untouched.
However, Vietnam’s position against China’s policies in the region begins to noticeably stand out from the “all neutral” background of the five as a whole.
This was particularly evident at the said summit in Tokyo, where at an individual joint press conference of Prime Ministers of Vietnam and Japan Shinzo Abe stated the two countries “shared serious concerns about the unilateral attempts to change status quo” occurring in the South China Sea (). At the same time, however, he did not give the direct reason of Japanese-Vietnamese concerns.
The situation in Japan-China relations as a whole and in Southeast Asia, in particular, may continue to swerve down the wrong track, as far as the Defense Ministry of Japan joins the process of securing national interests. This year, Japan has already conducted two joint military exercises with the Philippines – China’s most stringent regional opponent.
With the Japanese parliament adopting a new package of laws in the field of defense on July 16 only strengthening Japan’s military presence in Southeast Asia should be expected.
Commenting on recent Japanese economic and military activities in Southeast Asia, a columnist for the American Interest magazine concluded not without reason that they “are all striving to withstand the growing Chinese influence in the region“.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.