New Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will visit Indonesia and Vietnam from 18 to 21 Oct to hold talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
The trip will be Yoshihide Suga’s first visit after assuming office. Experts believe that Suga’s visit is largely to show support for the geopolitical interests of the US and form alliance with small nations eager to resist China’s aggressive expansion of regional influence.
According to Japanese media, Japan’s financial assistance to the two countries and a plan for lifting travel restrictions imposed due to the pandemic will be discussed.
In addition, amid China’s frequent maritime incursions into the South China Sea, Suga’s slated trip will be a reaffirmation of his predecessor Abe Shinzo’s “free and open indo-paciffic” strategy.
Sun Yun, Senior Fellow of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, an American think tank, said to Voice of America that this is a situation that the US would like to see.
According to Sun, it is easier for Japan to enhance its bilateral ties with other nations instead of directly and openly confronting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“That’s why Japan has an intrinsic interest in developing and deepening its relations with Southeast Asian countries,” said Sun.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University, also stated that “in terms of Japan’s foreign relations, these are two very important Southeast Asian nations, but clearly coming on the heels of the quad meeting in Tokyo there does seem to be geostrategic implications.”
The quad meeting refers to the high-level meeting that took place in Tokyo on 6 Oct among Australian and Japanese foreign ministers, the Indian external affairs minister, and the US Secretary of State Pompeo.
The quad ministerial meeting is widely believed to be an effort for containing the threats of communist China.
Deepening Ties under China’s Shadow
In July this year, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) reached an agreement with Vietnam to fund the construction of six patrol vessels for the Vietnam Coast Guard. All of the vessels will be built in Japan.
For Indonesia, Japan has been the largest donor country since 1960. Aid from Japan has accounted for 45% of Indonesia’s total foreign development assistance.
The CCP claims sovereignty over 90% of the South China Sea. It has built several artificial islands with infrastructures that could be used for military purposes.
Vietnam, Indonesia, and three other Southeast Asian countries as well as Taiwan all have raised objections to CCP’s sweeping sovereignty claims.
Over the past 20 years, Japan has repeatedly expelled the CCP’s aircrafts from disputed parts of the East China Sea claimed by Japan and China.
Common pressure of resisting CCP’s aggressions could be the linchpin of growing ties between Japan and Southeast Asian countries.
Hanh Nguyen, a fellow of the Japanese Grant Aid for Human Resource Development Scholarship wrote that “the common risks and challenges of living under China’s shadow have thus driven Japan and Vietnam to strengthen their relations.”
US Secretary of State Pompeo said in July this year that the US will support small countries that are under pressure from the CCP’s maritime expansion.
Amid the new Cold War with China, the US regards Japan as an ally that it can rely on among Asian democracies in order to gain geopolitical influence in Asia.