Japan faces off with China as battle for regional influence heats up

Japan’s largest warship has made a controversial sailing through disputed waters as Abe’s nation warms up to increasing militarisation.

by Francesca Ross

Shinzo Abe’s defence policy is sailing into dangerous waters. Japan’s largest warship since the end of World War Two has taken a cruise to the edge of China’s claimed territory in the South China Sea. The journey is part of a wider Japanese strategy to be more relevant and aggressive in its regional diplomacy, say well-placed sources.

The Izumo helicopter carrier’s four-day trip comes amid rising support in Japan for a more aggressive military stance. Citizens and policy-makers are actively discussing reform of the country’s pacifist constitution to recognise the Japanese self-defence force as its military.

The warship’s cruise through hot water was a show of force and defiance

“We are not just here to show our presence, but from the outside that is what it looks like,” said Rear Admiral Yoshihiro Goga, the commander of the Izumo mission to the very edge of the famous nine-dash line. The actual goal of the trip is to remind the US of the importance and strength of their alliance. Abe will also want China and governments on the Korean Peninsula to see the depth of his resolve.

The Japanese plan is to act as a foil to the American stance, say reports. Abe understands he cannot act alone and needs the support of the ASEAN nations if he is to see off political or territorial threats from China and Korea. He has recently increased bilateral support to Cambodia and hopes to edge both Phnom Penh and Manila away from Chinese influence. His negotiating position is based on reminding local leaders of their common Asian heritage.

The first steps towards more Japanese military intervention was a law passed through parliament in 2015. This allowed the country’s forces to mobilise overseas using minimum force if Japan or its allies are attacked and there was no other way to repel the attack. This was a huge decision for a country that has been tied to a repentant foreign policy of inaction for over 70 years.

Japan wants to show China it will stand up to aggression

China has provoked this change of stance with regular and aggressive incursions into Japan’s territory and affairs. Tensions between the two countries have been building since Japan purchased the disputed Senkaku islands five years ago. Chinese boats have been sailing in now-Japanese waters ever since. Over two hundred fishing vessels arrived on just one occasion. The suspected maritime militia stayed for four days. There have been up to three of these incursions a month.

These actions mean the Japanese public is concerned and angered by China’s attitude. Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre at Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the arrival of the warship “signals Tokyo’s political will in taking baby steps to establish itself as a security player in Southeast Asia, which comes at a critical moment when American interest in the region is in grave doubt”.

China’s growing network of facilities in the South China Sea is a huge concern for Japan. The country relies on the US$5 billion worth of trade through the area and Beijing’s programme of building puts this under question. Securing Japanese access to these routes is vital to achieve Abe’s other goal of increasing GDP and economic recovery.

Relations with America are an important influence on Japanese policy

American President Trump is likely to welcome Abe’s position. He has strongly advocated for Japan to take a larger role in the region. The country already has a strong working relationship with Trump’s country and will want to reinforce the value of its contribution to its American friends. The Japanese self-defence force is highly modern and has an annual budget of US$42 billion.

Abe will also want to show South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, that he means business. The South Korean has taken a softer approach to Pyongyang than his predecessor. Abe is ever-aware that North Korea can strike anywhere in Japan with missiles and will be looking to build support for strong action if needed. He has already been flexing his country’s muscles by participating in joint US military exercises and Singapore’s first ever fleet review.

The struggle at the core of this story is between the old and the new. China wants to move away from a US-dominated set-up towards an environment where Beijing is the region’s most influential player. Japan wants to see a rules-based order which respects long-standing international conventions and rulings. This is a tall order for Abe to deliver.

Abe will struggle to focus on foreign policy

The Japanese President is already suffering from a slump in support thanks to a scandal at home. And he has pinned his name, and his reputation, on an economic program which will absolutely have to deliver to secure his legacy. This means that to stand up to China he will need to push through significant changes – he may just not have the political capital to do so.

Abe must also face up to the new reality in the region. America reaffirmed its general support for Japan during the Secretary of State’s recent visit but the game has changed. China is playing the long game in building regional relations and Japan’s traditional, and vital, allies are potentially up for grabs. The Izumo may have sailed into hot water but so has Shinzo Abe.