Other  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.03.11

Japan and the South China Sea Forging Strategic Partnerships in a Divided Region

In the midst of growing tensions with China, Japan is deepening its strategic engagement in Southeast Asia. Preserving stability in the South China Sea, which is threatened by renewed frictions around contested territories, is a vital interest for sea lane-dependent Japan. Moreover, Tokyo considers Southeast Asian countries as crucial partners in balancing against an increasingly powerful and more assertive China.

Therefore, Tokyo is stepping up its security cooperation in the region through the promotion of regional maritime and security institutions, but more importantly, by building strategic partnerships and helping to foster the maritime capacities of key like-minded countries (notably Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam). In this perspective, Japan intensifies its defence diplomacy, it also grants larger amount of security-oriented official development assistance (ODA) and launched a brand-new military assistance program.

These initiatives augment the "great game" of influence currently underway in Southeast Asia and in which Japan is soft-balancing China and supporting a more sustainable US presence. Still, forging strategic partnerships is not an easy task as ASEAN countries, if increasingly polarized, are not passive in the face of the great powers contest. They are attempting to engage the important players, while hedging against eventual risks, by entering "soft arrangements" in terms of security guarantees and cooperation.

As East Asia grows seemingly more divided and as a competition for influence is flaring up, Europe is politically absent. Yet, expectations for more politico-military involvement from European countries in the region do exist, especially in Japan. If discussions about a possible "EU pivot" to East Asia are developing, many obstacles and limitations still constrain an expansion of European influence in the region. While some experts claim that the EU should support the US pivot by playing a complementary role in East Asia, some others argue that Europe should take account of its strengths and weaknesses and remain outside of the Asian theater.

Japan and the South China Sea Forging Strategic Partnerships in a Divided Region