The Rising Sun goes on tour – Part 2

Alessandro Ponzetto | May 2nd, 2022

On April 13, we covered some of the Japanese diplomatic efforts in ‘The Rising Sun goes on tour’. While primarily centred on the 2+2 meeting between Japan and the Philippines, we also mentioned an upcoming diplomatic tour planned for Prime Minister Kishida, focused on key ASEAN and European countries.

This trip, as mentioned in passing in ‘The Pacific Influence War – Part 4’, started on Friday with Indonesia, and today we will focus on the ASEAN leg of the journey.

Indonesia

Indonesia is one of the key countries in ASEAN, for multiple reasons. As of late, it has hit the headlines for its export ban on palm oil, a key commodity for most of the region, but it is significant also for other reasons. To start with, as mentioned above, there is some grievance with China over the South China Sea, which has caused some notable changes in Jakarta’s policy.

As mentioned in ‘The Pacific Influence War – Part 2’, Indonesia will hold this year a joint military exercise with the US and other eight nations, with parts of the exercise taking place in the South China Sea (specifically the Natuna Islands, an archipelago on the Southern end of the sea)..

Prime Minister Kishida mentioned this specific issue, among others. Quoting from Kyodo News:

“We are facing many challenges, including the situations in Ukraine, the East and South China seas and North Korea, and maintaining and strengthening the rules-based, free and open international order has become more important.”

The term ‘situations’ may be rather mild, seeing what has been happening in the areas mentioned by Kishida, but to understand his caution one has to view Indonesia more closely. The country has hosted the historing Bandung Conference, on which the Non Aligned Movement was built upon a few years later.

Since then, Indonesia has attempted to stay neutral, including in the current war between Russia and Ukraine. On the matter, Jakarta has been supportive of Ukraine and said that the war must be ended through dialogue. Jakarta is also attempting to make this dialogue happen, as they extended an invitation to Ukrainian President Zelenksyy to the G-20 summit (as Putin expressed his intention to attend).

The meeting itself is scheduled for November, so it will not be a factor for quite some time, but it is nonetheless useful in understanding the Indonesian point of view. On this, Kishida was rather diplomatic, as he vowed to cooperate toward the success of the summit.

With regards to the East and South China Sea, they have not said much specifically on the matter, but this topic was more front and centre in the next destination of the trip: Vietnam.

Vietnam

Vietnam, unlike Indonesia, has been at the forefront in the clash between East and West since the very beginning, to then be at the forefront in the clash between the Soviet Union and China. While a lot of time has passed, Hanoi is still at the forefront in the confrontation with China, and especially in the South China Sea (named East Sea in Vietnam). Quoting from VnExpress:

Speaking about the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea, the two leaders called on all parties involved to exercise restraint, not use or threaten to use force, comply with international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, fully implement the Declaration of the Parties on the East Sea, maintain and promote a favorable environment for negotiations, and achieve a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the East Sea.

Citing the Declaration of the Parties on the East Sea is a fascinating move, because it is for all intents and purposes the legal basis against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. It is divided in 10 points, which can be summarised in solving the territorial disputes by peaceful means and refraining from confrontational behaviours. The signatories were ASEAN and China, and the one actually signing for China was a person very familiar to all now: Wang Yi.

This particular declaration was signed on May 14, 2012, a few years before China decided to disregard it by building and then militarising artificial islands across the South China Sea. It was not the only item in the agenda, however.

The two countries signed 22 cooperation agreements, to further expand the economic and security ties between the two countries. Moreover, they also talked about Ukraine, on which they said they respect the basic principles of international law and the United Nations Charter, and related parties should not use or threaten to use force in international relations.

Once again, Kishida was rather careful here, as Moscow still plays a balancing role with regards to Vietnam vis-à-vis China. After all, despite talks to the contrary, the two do not entirely look eye to eye, and this was already evident before they signed the Joint Declaration (see ‘Sino-Russian honeymoon?’) for more).

Several of these themes, but especially security, are also important for the third and final leg of the ASEAN part of the trip: Thailand.

Thailand

Thailand has been in the news recently with regards to security, and specifically a deal with China. Back in 2017, the country ordered two submarines from China, which were meant to be delivered by 2023. The deal, however, has run aground due to a small but important detail: the lack of engines.

Back when the deal was signed, Thailand required the ordered submarines to have engines from MTU Friedrichshafen, a major German engine manufacturer. In February, Germany refused to ship the engines to China, with the German Embassy in Thailand issuing a statement explaining that China had not told Germany before concluding the contract with Thailand that the engine would be used in a submarine.

The fate of this deal creates an interesting opportunity for Japan, which is renowned for its submarines. A notable mention has to be given to the Oyashio-class, constructed between the 1990s and 2000s

They were upgraded in 2018 to almost match the capabilities of their successor, the Soryu-class, and the earlier ones in active service could be retired from JMSDF service by 2023. As such, it would give an alternative solution for the Thai Navy which, while old, would still be capable.

While it is unclear whether this will happen, Kyodo News reported that the two countries are seeking to reach an agreement on the transfer of Japanese defence equipment. Japan already has such deals with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. The clear objective is to counter China’s assertiveness, not only economically but also in other fields.

On this front, Japanese officials have said Kishida would also discuss a possible Reciprocal Access Agreement with Thailand, aimed at deepening their defence cooperation. This would further extend the reach of the JSDF, which is already inching closer to its distant past. For example, Japan is now in the process of reviewing the National Defence Program Guidelines, which may become classified as the US counterpart.

Other topics on the agenda of Kishida and his Thai counterpart, Prayuth Chan-ocha, are economic matters, with Japan investments having proved crucial in the industrialisation of the country for the past six decades, and Myanmar, on which both Thailand and Japan have kept a softer tone.

With regards to Myanmar, there is another piece of news: JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp., one of Eneos’ subsidiaries which owns a 19.3% stake in Myanmar’s Yetagun gas fields, said that it will exit the project after taking into consideration “the country’s current situation, including the social issues, and project economics based on the technical evaluation” of the gas fields.

Going back to Japan itself, the question now is whether it will take the next logical step and formally revise its Constitution. As things stand, it is difficult to say: not only the Japanese governments have always skirted around this particular issue, but there is also no consensus either way. The latest survey on the matter has an almost 50/50 split between those who say it is necessary to revise Article 9 and those who say it is not.

Even without this change, Japan has already played an increasingly important role in the region and beyond. While in Myanmar Japan’s diplomacy has definitely dropped the ball, as it could have exerted its influence to prevent or at least avoid the worst of the de facto civil war, Tokyo’s diplomatic efforts have been overall positive.

The main target has of course been countering China’s assertiveness, although Russia’s actions in Ukraine have brought old issues back to the fore and we should see more of this in the European leg of the trip.