Earlier in November, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kushida met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for talks that included deepening cooperation on defense.
Under Japan’s new aid scheme, known as the Official Security Assistance (OSA), the Philippine Navy will receive $4 million (€3.7 million) worth of coastal surveillance radars.
The military aid is the first to be released under the OSA, which aims to provide non-lethal military aid, including communication infrastructure, such as radars and satellite systems, along with materials to build port infrastructure.
Kishida also met with Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in Kuala Lumpur. “We agreed to accelerate adjustments toward the implementation of the OSA,” Kishida said in a press statement, without elaborating on specifics.
Japan lending a strategic hand in Southeast Asia
Japan launched the OSA in April as a diplomatic tool designed to assist “like-minded” countries across the Indo-Pacific region with defense aid as their security challenges continue to grow.
The Philippines, in particular, has been involved in a years-long dispute with China over Beijing’s claim over large swathes of the South China Sea under the so-called nine-dash line.
Tensions have continued despite a 2016 international tribunal ruling, which sided with the Philippines and stated that China’s claims were not recognized under international law.
This year, the Chinese Coast Guard has confronted Philippine fishing vessels on numerous occasions in disputed waters. This comes on top of China’s development of shoals and reefs into military bases, complete with airstrips.
The United States also opposes Beijing’s claims and regularly operates “freedom of navigation” air and sea missions through the waters to underline its position.
Similarly, Japan views China’s claims in the South China Sea as baseless and a threat to sea lanes that it relies on for imports and exports, most critically of energy, from the Middle East.
“China’s occupation of many of the islands and then the military build-up there from around 2013 really was the turning point for many of the states of Southeast Asia, but it also really made Japan understand what it was up against,” Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Meiji University, told DW.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have claims – sometimes competing – over the scattered islands, Ito added.
Japan steps in as friction with China grows
For decades, Japan had worked hard to build ties with the nations of South-East Asia through development assistance and trade agreements. The OSA expands on Official Development Assistance (ODA), which extended Japanese influence in developing countries though non-strategic aid.
Restrained from signing security agreements or providing military hardware under the terms of its constitution, Tokyo nevertheless earned a reputation as a generous and fair aid and trade partner.
The economic assistance available under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in 2013, caught Japan off guard, and wooed Japan’s partners into China’s orbit.
However, the BRI has been criticized as being a debt trap, with opponents claiming recipients are at risk of ending up beholden to Beijing.
More countries are also realizing that Chinese financial assistance has strings attracted and are distancing themselves from a project that once promised vast economic opportunities through infrastructure projects and enhanced trade.
The Philippines announced in late October that it was pulling out of several infrastructure projects under the scheme, saying Beijing had not provided funding in time.
While Manila has not confirmed that it was withdrawing due to ongoing Chinese aggression against Philippine military outposts on atolls that Beijing is now claiming sovereignty over, analysts say that has been a major factor.
“With Manila distancing itself from China, Japan is stepping in to strengthen its own partnership there and it will similarly look to take advantage of more friction between Beijing and other countries,” Ito said.
During Kishida’s Philippines visit, Japan pledged over a half billion dollars in funding for five new patrol boats for the Philippines Coast Guard.
“I truly hope that this will lead to regional peace and prosperity as well as a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Kishida said. The five patrol boats add to several vessels that Japan has provided to the Philippines in recent years.
Japan has also provided patrol ships have also been provided to Vietnam and Malaysia, with both nations also in line for additional maritime security and development assistance in the near future.
“China has clearly been trying to change the status quo across the region and the Japanese government is trying to reach out to the countries that have been most impacted by that to build a coalition of like-minded nations,” Ito said.
“In some ways, it is comparable to how NATO expanded into eastern Europe after those countries won their freedom,” he added.
Expanding economic partnerships
Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, said that Japanese companies have been moving their manufacturing facilities out of mainland China and shifting to nations in South-East Asia, in part due to worsening repression in China.
Seventeen Japanese businessmen have been arrested on espionage charges since Beijing introduced a draconian new security law in 2014.
“Some of these countries in Southeast Asia are rising economic powerhouses – Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines – and greater economic cooperation with Japan will further help to cement ties,” he said.
“But I sense there is also a growing feeling in Japan that we could and should be doing more to assist these partner nations,” he said.
“Manila has stated quite clearly that it wants greater military cooperation with Japan, they want to purchase our military equipment and take part in exercises.”
“The Philippines is the key to the region, and we should be doing more to assist them,” he said. “The security of the Indo-Pacific is increasingly coming down to Japan and we need more partners.”