Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday that his country will play a greater regional security role in East Asia, vowing to support Southeast Asian countries in defending their territorial claims amid growing tensions in the South China Sea. Abe’s vow raises the stakes at a delicate time as Vietnam and the Philippines press their claims in the body of water against an increasingly assertive China, which recently provoked an outcry from Hanoi following its decision to operate an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands.
Abe, speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference on Friday, made a point of addressing his overtures at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc specifically, positioning Japan as a crucial regional ally— and, not so implicitly, pointing to Japan’s potential as a counterweight to China. ASEAN had notably opted to stay out of member states Vietnam and the Philippines’ escalating standoff with China but with Abe making a direct play for the regional bloc, the organization will find its carefully neutral position increasingly challenged, especially if China’s aggressive approach continues.
The prime minister’s pledge to play “a more proactive role” in East Asian territorial disputes is a notable but strategic shift from Japan’s traditional position in regional security dynamics. It is also not entirely surprising as the leader has seized the current tensions as justification for his efforts back home to upend decades-old constitutional restrictions on Japan’s military. Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government have made a controversial push towards revising the interpretation of Artice 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces prevents Japan from using force to resolve international disputes.
While Abe has centered his argument around equalizing Japan’s security alliance with the United States, he has not been shy about alluding to the region’s changing security environment— i.e. the ramifications of an emboldened, territory-hungry China. An empowered Japanese military might be welcomed by Manila and Hanoi but Abe’s efforts have, unsurprisingly, provoked Beijing’s ire. Indeed, one senior Chinese official accused the leader on Thursday of exploiting regional territorial disputes as a pretext for changing Japan’s military policy, even deliberately escalating the Diaoyu/Shenkaku dispute between Japan and China for this end.
As threatened as Beijing may be by Abe’s drive, Chinese officials can at least take heart in the fact that the leader still faces considerable opposition back home to any departure from his country’s current restrained security policy. Even the LDP’s ruling coalition partner New Komeito has come out vocally against the constitutional initiative. Whether Abe can succeed in this effort domestically or not, the leader will no doubt continue to press Tokyo’s position as a counterweight to their powerhouse neighbor within the region— however, this move might necessitate a conscious effort to clamp down on his own government’s nationalistic provocations. While these have largely been of the symbolic variety (i.e. visits to the Yasukuni Shrine), they are nonetheless a powerful means of undermining Abe’s regional overtures — one China will no doubt be glad to exploit.