Japan: The Philippines’ new best friend?

Richard Javad Heydarian
REUTERS/Yuya Shino
REUTERS/Yuya Shino

With a rising China eclipsing American influence in Asia, Japan has stepped up its efforts to rein in Beijing’s territorial ambitions. And President Aquino’s recent visit to Japan couldn’t be more timely.

Despite the dangerous upsurge in maritime disputes between China, on one hand, and the Philippines and Vietnam, on the other, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) still struggles to forge a unified position on the South China Sea disputes.

Given the lingering doubts over Washington’s commitment and wherewithal to counter China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea, both Hanoi and Manila have predictably sought more assistance from like-minded powers such as Tokyo.

In many ways, Japan has gradually re-emerged as a geopolitical counterweight to China -- or, at least, this is what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has in mind.

Since his return to power in late-2012, Abe has emerged as one of Japan’s most charismatic leaders in recent memory, decisively pushing for a dramatic overhaul of his country’s long-stagnant economy and pacifist foreign policy.

Among his contemporaries, he has stood out for his iron determination to make Japan once again a leading powerhouse in East Asia, astutely tapping into growing concerns over China’s assertive territorial posturing.

Last month, during his keynote address in the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue -- an annual forum in Singapore, which brings together top defense officials and experts from across the Asia-Pacific region -- Abe expressed his country’s willingness to play a more pro-active role in providing “utmost support” to the members of the ASEAN, specifically in terms of ensuring the “security of the seas and the skies."

Although he didn’t explicitly point his finger at China, it was pretty clear that what Abe had in mind was Beijing’s purported plans to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) as well as expanding para-military patrols and reclamation activities across the South China Sea.

The Japanese leader tried to build on his earlier efforts in late-2013, when he gathered ASEAN leaders in Tokyo to criticize China’s (then) newly-imposed ADIZ in the East China Sea. To entice his guests, Abe went so far as offering ASEAN members up to $20 billion in economic incentives.

But there are a number of obstacles. In Japan, coalition partners as well as the greater majority of the Japanese population has resisted Abe’s plans for revising the country’s (post-World War II) constitution, which bars the country from developing a capacity to project power beyond its immediate territories.

As a result, Abe is instead pushing for a “re-interpretation” of the constitution under the principle of “collective self-defence”, paving the way for Japan to contribute to the “stabilization” of international waters.

Among neighboring countries, Abe has come under criticism for his purportedly “revisionist” stance on Japan’s historical atrocities. In South Korea and China, there is still a strong feeling that Japan has yet to fully apologize for its past, offering commensurate compensation to the victims of Japan’s World War II aggression. Abe will also need a significant turnabout in Japan’s lacklustre economy if he wishes to shore up his country’s military capabilities and help allies across the region.

Nonetheless, through revitalized bilateral partnership with countries such as the Philippines, the Abe administration aims to present Japan as a “force for good”. And Aquino’s enthusiastic endorsement of Japan’s bid for an expanded regional role in Asia could certainly help Abe’s cause.

While Japan’s current Ambassador to the Philippines Toshinao Urabe went the extra mile to apologize for Imperial Japan’s brutal occupation of the Philippines, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces undertook massive humanitarian operations during the aftermath of the Yolanda typhoon. In addition to being the Philippines’ leading trading and investment partner, Japan is also relaxing visa restrictions for Filipinos and contemplating a more robust presence in post-conflict Mindanao.

So in a strange twist of history, one could argue that Japan has perhaps emerged as the premier strategic partner for the Philippines.

Richard Javad Heydarian teaches political science and international relations at Ateneo De Manila University. He has written for or has been interviewed by Aljazeera, BBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, among others.