Japan Explores Vietnam, Indonesia As New Indo-Pacific Partners

Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Vietnam and Indonesia could feed into the emergence a new balance of power in the region, experiencing intense rivalry, between China and the US…writes ATUL ANEJA

Japan-US-Australia-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting

Just a few days after foreign ministers of the Indo-Pacific Quad comprising India, Australia, Japan and the United States met in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga has sped to Vietnam and Indonesia — two major middle powers, whose role would be pivotal in constraining Chinas regional footprint.

China would be following the visit with considerable anxiety, as Suga’s dialogue in Hanoi and Jakarta could help further fortify, if not expand the Quad security core at a later stage. Suga’s visit could feed into the emergence a new balance of power in the region, experiencing intense rivalry, between China and the US.

The Prime Minister’s trip is likely to add another layer, and in some ways amplify some of the talking points which have been recently flagged by senior US officials who have been prowling the region, following the Trump administration’s open spat with China following the Covid-19 pandemic. Japan and the US are security allies, who are in constant dialogue with each other, sharing in-depth intelligence in areas of common interest, including China and the Indo-Pacific region.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with President of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong

Ahead of Suga’s visit, senior US officials, intent on walling Beijing’s growing influence on the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), had already shaped the ground for Suga’s dialogue with his interlocutors.

Less than a month ago, the US assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs and the Vietnamese vice minister of foreign affairs had exchanged notes online on “bilateral security cooperation at the eleventh US-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defence Dialogue.” The list of topics that were flagged included security cooperation, defence trade, maritime security and peacekeeping. Vietnam, the first stop of the Prime Minister’s visit, is currently the rotating head of ASEAN, which is China’s top trading partner. Despite a strong economic relationship, Beijing and Hanoi, which went to war in 1979, share a historic distrust of each other.

Speaking in Tokyo on Friday, Suga said he wants his trip to Southeast Asia “to show our nation and the world that Japan will play a leading role in the region’s peace and prosperity,” Nikkei Asia reported. Following their talks Suga and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, agreed to cooperate on the “free and open Indo-Pacific” initiative. Addressing a joint press conference on Monday, Suga said Vietnam, is a pivot and an important partner in achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific. The two countries were also close to an agreement on export of Japanese military hardware to Vietnam.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with Indonesian President Joko Widodo

During the second leg of his visit to Indonesia, the Japanese Prime Minister is expected to probe the level and extent to which Indonesia, known for its traditional aversion for alliances, is open to joint participation in enhancing security of the Indo-Pacific.

As Suga lands in Jakarta, US defence secretary Mark Esper is hosting the Indonesian defence minister Prabowo Subianto, signalling that Japan and US, key members of the Indo-Pacific Quad, would likely be seeking an Indonesian pivot in their direction.

“His visit to Washington is particularly significant because over the past two decades Mr. Subianto has reportedly been twice denied entry to the United States for alleged human rights violations. Washington now seems to be willing to look the other way on questions pertaining to Subianto’s past to advance closer bilateral defence cooperation with Indonesia,” wrote Kuni Miyake, special adviser to Suga’s cabinet, in The Japan Times.

Why is cultivating Indonesia so important? On account of its unique oceanic geography, Indonesia, would be central for imposing unbearable pressure on China, in case of a regional blow out. The Indonesian archipelago hosts at least four major choke points, which can be leveraged to counter Beijing, as some of them are critical for China’s seaborne trade.

Foremost among these channels is the Malacca strait– the crucial and shortest trade link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This strait is a narrow, 890 km stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The vast majority of China’s oil imports, from the Gulf, Venezuela and Angola, passes through this route, which is also the lifeline for Japan and South Korea–the other major industrial economies of the region.

Indonesia also hosts the Sunda strait — the channel between the islands of Sumatra and Java. It is an important waterway for ships travelling along the Cape route in Africa to East Asia. Australian vessels setting course to destination in Southeast or East Asia, also make active use of this passage.

The third channel, the Lombok strait, also a part of the Indonesian archipelago, is deep and wide. It is therefore ideal for transiting huge oil tankers and other monster ships with 100,000 dead weight tonnage or more.

The Ombai-Wetar Straits, also in Indonesia, play a unique military role. Because they are extremely deep, they provide undetected passage for submarines traveling between the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Consequently, there is considerable interest in these straits among the strategic communities of the Indo-Pacific countries, who are wary of the transit of Chinese submarines from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

Recent frictions between Indonesia and China may offer new opportunities for Japan and the Indo-Pacific Quad to bond. Indonesia and China’s growing differences are centred around Beijing’s claim over the nine-dash line, a vaguely defined alignment, which China says marks its maritime border in the South China Sea. China cites historical reasons to stake its claims, along a line whose specific coordinates have not been spelled out.

In Jakarta’s view, maritime borders are defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). With Indonesia’s undisputed Natuna islands as the reference point, Jakarta argues that UNCLOS allows the extension of Indonesia oceanic boundaries in areas, which fall within China’s erroneous claim line.