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Analysts: Japan Strengthening ASEAN Security Ties to Contain China  

FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, shakes hands with South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol during the ASEAN-East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 13, 2022. A Japan-ASEAN summit begins Saturday in Tokyo.
FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, shakes hands with South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol during the ASEAN-East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 13, 2022. A Japan-ASEAN summit begins Saturday in Tokyo.

Tokyo has been expanding its security ties with multiple Southeast Asian countries ahead of a Japan-ASEAN summit that analysts see as a forum to offset China's aggressive behavior in the region.

Japan is scheduled to host the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit in Tokyo from Saturday to Monday, marking the 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan friendship and cooperation.

Japan and 10 ASEAN countries seek to expand ties at a time when "the free and open international order based on the rule of law is under serious challenge," Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday.

Kishida said challenges in the Indo-Pacific include "attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force" in the East and South China seas and "North Korea's increasing nuclear missile activities."

Saying that ASEAN is "the key for the realization of Japan's vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific," Kishida added that the economic prosperity of ASEAN's 10 members "can only be achieved if the peace and stability of the region are protected."

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA on Thursday that "China is glad to see relevant countries and regional organizations develop friendly and cooperative relations." He continued: "But we hope that such relations would not target a third party and should contribute to regional peace, stability and prosperity."

While China will not be at the summit, analysts said it is likely to figure prominently in the talks.

"Japan regards China's regional hegemonic ambitions as a grave threat to its security and has actively worked to upgrade security partnerships … to contain China in line with the U.S.-backed free and open Indo-Pacific," Jeff Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University, Japan Campus, told VOA in an email.

In Japan, 76% of adults see China as a bigger threat than North Korea's nuclear weapons, according to a survey that the Pew Research Center conducted from June to September and released on December 5.

Just as the Philippines and Vietnam have maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea, Tokyo has a long-standing territorial dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry expressed "serious concern" on Wednesday about clashes between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, supporting the Philippines' "long-standing objections to unlawful maritime claims, militarization, coercive activities" in the area.

In the run-up to the summit, Japan has held meetings with several Southeast Asian countries to broaden their security ties.

On December 7, Japanese Ambassador Atsushi Ueno met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet in Phnom Penh and discussed forging closer security ties, including organizing joint naval exercises and army working group meetings.

Kishida held talks with Vietnam's President Vo Van Thuong on November 27 in Tokyo and, in upgrading their ties to a "comprehensive strategic partnership," agreed to expand defense exchanges and transfers of defense equipment.

In Manila, Kishida agreed with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on November 3 to negotiate a defense pact that would allow each country's troops to enter the other's territory for joint military drills.

Kishida also announced Japan would provide coastal surveillance radar and defense equipment to the Philippines, in addition to several patrol ships it has already provided.

Daniel Sneider, lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University, told VOA on Saturday via email that Japan has "loosened some previous limits on security ties, including the supply of some weapons or defense-related equipment such as coast guard patrol ships, but it remains limited in scope."

Undergirding the security ties is Japan's Official Security Assistance (OSA) program that Tokyo launched in April to provide defense equipment and financial assistance to like-minded countries.

James Przystup, Japan chair at the U.S.-based Hudson Institute, told VOA on Tuesday via email that OSA is aimed at supporting Japan's free and open Indo-Pacific strategy that seeks "to advance regional stability."

Temple University's Kingstone said Japan's security ties to ASEAN nations are evolving and "will depend on the comfort zone of regional partners" that so far have welcomed Japan's security assistance.

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Indo-Pacific Security Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said Japan's security ties with ASEAN nations do not contradict its pacifist constitution "nor the basic principles for self-defense."

He said some ASEAN countries at the summit will be wary of angering China with the proposed expansion of security ties with Tokyo.

"While a lot of the ASEAN countries may agree on security cooperation for a free and open Indo-Pacific, there will be some states that would be hesitant to show a clear posture due to concerns over China's reactions," Hinata-Yamaguchi said.

"Hence going forward, we may see a clear divide between those that work closely with Japan, those that refuse, and those that are in the middle."