Japanese PM Visits Indonesia, Looks to Bolster Defense Ties with ASEAN States

Tia Asmara
id-jp-1000 Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (center right) welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (center left) to the presidential palace in Bogor, on the outskirts of Jakarta, Oct. 20, 2020.
[Photo courtesy Indonesian Presidential Palace]

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga agreed on Tuesday to accelerate talks on the sale of defense equipment to Jakarta, as he expressed support for a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific region during a visit with Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

His visit to the presidential palace in Bogor, near Jakarta, came after a stop in Hanoi on Monday in which Suga agreed in principle to Tokyo supplying Vietnam with military equipment, as Japan looks to expand its military exports six years after lifting restrictions on sales of arms and defense equipment abroad.

Analysts said the choice of Southeast Asia for Suga’s first foreign trip since he became prime minister last month underscored the importance of the region for Japan’s geopolitical strategy, amid Beijing’s increasingly aggressive maritime activities in the contested South China Sea.

“We agreed to speed up discussions toward the transfer of defense equipment and technology and push for the development of human resources in law enforcement at sea,” Suga said, in an apparent reference to tensions in the South China Sea, where Beijing has repeatedly transgressed into waters claimed by other countries, including Indonesia.

“Japan will cooperate and join hands with Indonesia for peace and prosperity in the region based on the partnership and strategic objectives of our countries,” he said.

During his talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc a day earlier, the two sides discussed the South China Sea. Suga also referred to the waterway during a speech to the Vietnam-Japan University, where he vowed to work “hand-in-hand” with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish the “rule of law in seas and oceans.”

“Japan is strongly opposed to any actions that escalate tensions in the South China Sea. Japan has been consistently supporting the preservation of the rule of law in seas,” Suga said in his speech in Hanoi, while calling for the peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to force or coercion.

On Tuesday in Indonesia, Suga also spoke about Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, which emphasizes the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade, and capacity building for maritime law enforcement in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

“Japan fully supports ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook, initiated by Indonesia, as it has many fundamental similarities to Japan’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Suga said. ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific region stresses the importance of maritime domain, and of dialogue rather than conflict, for a closely integrated Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean.

After their meeting, Jokowi said he and Suga agreed that the South China Sea could be a place of “peace and stability.”

“I emphasized the importance of the spirit of cooperation to be strengthened, especially amidst the increasingly sharp rivalry between the world’s great powers,” Jokowi said, referring to tensions between China and the U.S.

Both leaders agreed to a meeting between their respective foreign and defense ministers as soon as possible.

Suga also announced a 50 billion yen (U.S. $473.6 million) loan to Indonesia to strengthen the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and to support the economic recovery there. Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous nation, now leads all countries in East Asia in the number of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

According to Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C. think-tank, Japan is looking to take on a greater role in Southeast Asia.

“I think Japan is stepping up by playing a more proactive regional role since the United States is seen as somewhat distracted at the moment,” he told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.

“Washington has been playing bad cop with Beijing, but Tokyo can play good cop in Southeast Asia by highlighting both its development assistance and its investment across the region.”

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (L) greets Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in Bogor, on the outskirts of Jakarta, Oct. 20, 2020.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (L) greets Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in Bogor, on the outskirts of Jakarta, Oct. 20, 2020.
[Photo courtesy Indonesian Presidential Palace]

Strategic importance

Another analyst said that Suga’s trip to Southeast Asia amid tensions in the South China Sea is significant.

“There are concerns from many countries, such as the U.S., Australia and Japan, that China’s military and economic power will dominate the South China Sea,” Hikmahanto Juwana, an international relations expert at the University of Indonesia, told BenarNews.

“Japan will go all out in helping Indonesia to prevent China from asserting its unilateral claims.”

In addition, Japan wants to make it clear to Indonesia that Japanese companies and technology are superior to those of China, Hikmahanto said.

Japan’s and Indonesia’s talks on defense equipment sales come even as Jakarta is looking to modernize its military.

Last week, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto met in Washington with his U.S. counterpart, Mark Esper, and discussed defense acquisitions. On Tuesday, Prabowo was in Vienna to hold talks on Jakarta’s proposal to acquire Austria’s entire fleet of 15 Eurofighter Typhoon jets.

Japan, meanwhile, is slowly shoring up its defense exports to the region’s countries that are South China Sea claimants, after it lifted a ban on weapons exports in 2014.

Just a day before the talks with Indonesia, Japan agreed in principle to supply Vietnam with military equipment. In August, Japan signed its first ever major defense export deal since its pacifist constitution was adopted in 1947, selling advanced long-range surveillance radars to the Philippines.

Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, along with Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China.

While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Meanwhile, Indonesia this year rejected an American proposal to allow U.S. maritime surveillance planes to land and refuel on Indonesian territory, Reuters news agency reported on Tuesday, citing four senior Indonesian officials familiar with the matter.

The Quad

Significantly, Japan’s ally, the U.S, has also been courting ASEAN countries to get their support on the South China Sea issue. And in a parallel track, Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. have formed “The Quad,” an informal strategic forum that has regular summits and military drills among the members.

On Oct. 15, the United States, Japan and Australia conducted naval exercises in the South China Sea, the American Navy’s Pacific Fleet said in a statement.

For its part, China has not taken kindly to these manoeuvers.

Last week, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, took aim at the U.S. government, saying it was seeking an “Indo-Pacific NATO” along with India, Australia and Japan.

“What it (The Quad) pursues is to trumpet the old-fashioned cold war mentality and start up confrontation among different groups and blocs, and stoke geopolitical competition,” Wang said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, after meeting with Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Like Japan’s Suga, Wang, too, was on a trip to Southeast Asia, where he visited Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore, in addition to Malaysia.

Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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