BANGKOK — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s three-nation visit to South East Asia this week is seen partly as a regional diplomatic push amid tense relations with China, and partly as an effort to expand trading markets.
Japan already has investments and robust trade with Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, and a government spokesman says Abe's trip this week is about reaching out to countries seen as key sources of regional economic growth.
In Thailand, Japan accounts for more than 60 percent of all foreign direct investment, or around $10 billion. Abe’s visit is the first by a Japanese prime minister in more than a decade.
Thai economist Somphob Manargansan says Japan has been actively cultivating closer links with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), in part to counter-balance China’s regional influence.
“This is quite different from the former Japanese style to dealing with the foreign countries. So now we see they move aggressively, very radically to strengthen the cooperation and relationship around the globe. Particularly the main objective may be to counterbalance with the role of China,” Manarangsan said.
Territorial disputes already color China's ties with Japan and most countries in Southeast Asia. Vietnam and the Philippines are key parties to a dispute over access to resources in the South China Sea, a region also claimed by China. The territorial dispute has split the 10-nation ASEAN group, as countries close to China have backed Beijing.
Japan has a separate territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea. The disagreement over ownership of the islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China - has triggered a deep souring of ties and drops in bilateral trade and investment.
Carl Thayer, an Australian-based Asia defense strategist, says Abe hopes to build on Japan's already strong ties with the Philippines and Vietnam through a new strategic defense dialogue.
"I’m seeing mainly political, diplomatic, security, defense, shoring up Japan’s position - the second voice - if there’s any strategic uncertainty about the staying power of the United States [in Asia], Japan is demonstrating its in the region," he said. "China can’t tell it to go away and its going to play a more proactive role and that’s a price that China has to pay for the pressure on Senkaku [islands].”
The deteriorating ties with China already have led to Japan’s exports to China falling by more than 8 percent last year. This was viewed as serious because China is Japan’s leading trading partner. ASEAN is now seen as a key part of a strategy to counter any loss of business in China.
Tokyo and Beijing have long had diplomatic and economic ties with Southeast Asian nations, where their agendas have been viewed with deep suspicion in the past.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says relations between the East Asian powers and their Southeast Asian neighbors have undergone a reversal from the years after World War II. Storey says when Japan was investing in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, it came under criticisms similar to those now leveled at China.
"That basically Japan was using, was pursuing a kind of neo-imperialist, neo-colonialist policy in which it simply wanted to strip Southeast Asia of its natural resources and dump Japanese manufactured goods on the region," Storey noted. "And, of course, these concerns were really overblown because Japanese investment has been so important to Southeast Asia's economic development. So, we're seeing some of the same concerns expressed about China.”
Chinese officials have said little publicly about the Japanese prime minister's Southeast Asian trip, but have criticized reports that Abe is seeking a small increase in military spending partly as a response to their territorial disputes. Chinese state-backed news agencies have warned Japan that investment ties are threatened if China is provoked. The Xinhua news agency called Japan’s foreign policy “unwise” and “self destructive.”
China is Japan’s largest trading partner, with trade between the nations tripling since 2000 to more than $300 billion. But in the past year, trade has fallen following boycotts and nationalist protests in China to Japanese products.