As most people this week were busy picturing the interior of an expensive hotel suite in the center of Moscow, the Obamas are about to enter their final week in the White House. Though news reports nowadays read like the script of a new South Park episode, in a few days from now people will have no choice but to wake up to the reality of a Trumpian world. In preparation for the uncertainty such a world entails, diplomats around the globe are shoring up relations with friendly countries.
Like in Tokyo. For the past two months, Japanese diplomats have been frantically preparing for a new reality in East Asia’s security environment, as Trump has threatened to withdraw military support to key East Asian allies. With the inauguration ceremony only a week away, Prime Minister Abe planned a six-day trip to Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam between January 12-17, in a hasty attempt to step up Japan’s economic and military game in the region before the impending change in command in Washington. There is a clear sense of urgency in Abe’s trip, with uncertainty looming about the approach and policies Trump will adopt in East Asia.
Abe’s Pacific Rim trip
The Prime Minister’s trip abroad is aimed at reminding the Pacific Rim countries there is an alternative to China’s clout. Abe hopes to deepen security cooperation with the countries he’s visiting, all of which are located around the South China Sea. According to one senior Japanese official:
“The trips are aimed at reaffirming the importance of the U.S. alliance network in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthening coordination with major countries in the region. […] Japan hopes to fulfill a leading role in promoting close coordination with Asia-Pacific nations at a time when uncertainties are increasing in the political, security and economic fields.”
While Japan is not a claimant in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it has repeatedly raised its concern regarding China’s rising military presence in the resource-rich waters. Tokyo deems the issue important because it benefits from the preservation of free navigation and is dependent on open sea lanes for its energy needs (importing fossil fuels). Moreover, any diplomatic leeway given to Beijing in the South China Sea would likely end up hurting Japan in its own dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Earlier this year, Japan’s Defense Minister outlined the actions his government would take in order to drive China back:
“Japan on its part will increase its engagement in the South China Sea through, for example, Maritime Self Defense Force joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy, bilateral and multi-lateral exercises with regional navies, as well as providing capacity building assistance to coastal nations.”
Abe’s trip to the Philippines (Jan. 12-3), Australia (Jan. 14), Indonesia (Jan. 15) and Vietnam (Jan. 16-17) is an affirmation of this expressed willingness to limit China, with all four countries playing a crucial role in the South China Sea.
Filipino President Duterte has in recent months announced his realignment with China, back-lashing against US criticism on his domestic anti-drugs policies. So Abe visited Duterte, the first head of state to have actually done so since he took office June 30, to remind him of Japan’s money (during the meeting two days ago, a pledge of ¥1 trillion from public and private sources was made for economic cooperation in the next five years), and to press the Philippines to keep up its opposition to China in the maritime dispute. Abe offered training support for Philippine Coast Guard personnel who face off against Chinese government vessels, several high-speed boats, and promised to enhance information-sharing.
Yet while Duterte likely recognizes the importance of Japan to the Philippine’s economy (Japan was the largest source of foreign direct investment in 2015, with a total of $18 billion), the domestically revered Filipino leader has demonstrated his willingness to fare a more independent course. Though his visit to Beijing was more of an affront and warning to Washington than a radical 180 degree diplomatic turn, the fact Xi pledged an impressive $24 billion in investment and aid to a ‘Brother‘ he had just barely gotten to know, will have opened the Philippines’ eyes to the rewards gained from playing both sides of the Pacific. The Japanese PM’s visit is unlikely to have upended this foreign policy shift in Manilla, which only days ago announced the development and expansion of military ties with Russia.
Abe’s one-day visit to Australia, originally planned to take place months from now, took place in a much more welcoming environment. The position of Australia regarding China and the South China Sea is not bound to change anytime soon, despite some politicians including former prime minister Keating calling to “cut the tag” with American foreign policy following the election of Trump. Though the decision of the government down under to pick France over Japan as its preferred builder of nuclear subs, almost a year ago, was a blow to Tokyo, it did not significantly hurt the diplomatic relationship between the two countries. Abe and his counterpart Turnbull signed a military pact today which will boost defense ties.
Though both countries reaffirmed their respective alliances with the United States to “remain as relevant and important today as they have been for over six decades,” Abe had come to Australia to deepen ties and discuss cooperation regardless of the decisions made and things said by Washington. But with comments from incoming Secretary of State Tillerson who said he would “not allow” China access to its artificial islands in the South China Sea, Australia is fearful of being dragged into a conflict with China by the Trump administration. After signing the defense pact, Abe said “it is more necessary than ever before for Japan and Australia, as special strategic partners, to play a leading role for regional peace and prosperity.” But given Australia’s heavy economic dependence on China, Canberra is unlikely to willingly play the role of aggressor.
Tomorrow, Abe will visit Jakarta. Topic of his discussion with Indonesian Prime Minister Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo will be the continuation of four strategic economic projects between Indonesia and Japan.Though the South China Sea issue is not officially part of the agenda, it is likely to be mentioned during Abe’s meeting with his counterpart. Only weeks ago, the two countries signed an agreement to establish a bilateral maritime forum, which will cover maritime safety, security, economy, infrastructure, and training. The initiative underlines Japan’s efforts to converge with Indonesia, despite setbacks in its relationship with Jakarta due to Jokowi prioritizing good economic ties with Beijing.
The Japanese Prime Minister will conclude his six-day trip by visiting Vietnam on Monday. Abe will use the visit to strengthen the bilateral relationship, and is expected to offer patrol vessels to help Vietnam strengthen its maritime patrol capabilities in the South China Sea. It would not be the first time Tokyo pledged boats to Hanoi. In 2015, the Japanese delivered six patrol vessels to the Vietnam Marine Police following a comprehensive Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation between the two countries. Abe’s visit to Hanoi will continue the steady beefing up of relations against the backdrop of China’s rising assertiveness, and highlight Japan’s commitment to countries opposing China’s territorial claims. On January 17, the premier will return to his homeland.
Japan’s clout, or lack thereof
The significance of the timing of the trip is clear to the region and the countries Abe is visiting. Japan hopes to boost morale against an assertive China and is assuming a more active role in a bid for political leadership. But Japan’s clout in the region is heavily dependent on US presence in the region.
So far, Abe’s interaction with Trump has highlighted the inability of the Japanese leader to exert any control on the incoming commander-in-chief to maintain such presence. Abe was the first foreign leader to meet President-Elect Trump back in November last year, shortly after the surprising outcome of the elections. His visit to the Trump Tower balanced between an attempt to gain favor with the incoming president of the United States and a way to reassure the Japanese public of a business as usual future with Japan’s main ally. After the meeting, Abe declared to reporters he had “great confidence” in Trump, and said he was convinced the good relationship between the two countries would continue once Trump had assumed his office.
His words lacked substance though. A few days after Abe met the president-elect, Trump announced he would quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal on his first day in the White House. A huge blow to Japan, which has been one of the pact’s biggest supporters. While, ironically, attending a gathering of TPP leaders in Lima, Abe said in response to Trump’s announcement the trade deal would be “meaningless” without Washington’s involvement. Yet in a surprise move, the Japanese Diet ratified the pact a few weeks later. Abe said the ratification was meant to send a message across the world about the importance of regional free trade and Japan’s commitment to the promotion of free trade.
The move should be interpreted as supporting Japan’s bid to political leadership in the region. But it actually highlights Japan’s inability to successfully claim a leadership status.
First of all, Tokyo is unable to take over Washington’s role as the flag barrier of free trade in East Asia. Japan’s attempt to resuscitate TPP is unlikely to get the backing from other Asian nations as long as it does not involve the US. Moreover, while the trade pact is now essentially defunct, regional trade integration in Asia is still under way with the proposed China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) (A free trade agreement which involves 16 countries, including all 10 members of ASEAN, as well as China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand). Therefore, China is expected to fill the void left by a protectionist America, promoting free trade both regionally and globally (to support its ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) plans).
And while Abe might be opening his wallet to boost regional security cooperation in preparation of a Trump presidency, his financial pledges lack conviction. Sure, Japan’s defense budget might have reached record heights in 2016, but pledging a few billion yen to some Pacific Rim countries is not going to change much in an already heavily militarized region. Hanoi does most of its military bidding in Moscow (though after the US has lifted its arms embargo to Vietnam last year, this practice might slowly change), and Manilla might follow its lead with the recently announced tightening of defense relations with Russia. Also having lost the $40 billion-sized contract of Australia’s submarines to France, Japan’s defense industry clearly has some introspective thinking to do.
Japan’s promises of stability and peace to a region which is fearful of China and uncertain what to expect from a Trump government are meaningless without backing from the United States. Policymakers in the region will wait to see the details of Washington’s policies unfold before truly talking action. Trump’s appointment of China-hardliner Navarro to lead the newly created White House National Trade Council and his comments on China’s trade policies signal a stiffening of economic relations between Beijing and Washington. Yet regarding America’s stance on other areas, like the South China Sea, much is still unclear. If Tillerson’s comments in his role as pick for Secretary of State are to be taken at face value, he might be steering the region towards actual conflict with China. But such a move would be counterproductive to the isolationist intentions of Trump.
Abe’s trip is a clear message towards China and serves as a way to boost morale both domestically and abroad shortly before Trump’s inauguration. But it is unlikely to validate Tokyo’s claim for political leadership in the region. In spite of its strong economic presence in these countries, Japan is unable to withstand China’s clout over the region without its longtime ally. A few extra patrol boats floating around in the South China Sea won’t change that.