Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump reinforced the security guarantees iterated by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on his visit to Japan and South Korea the week before. Trump’s explicit support for Japan has partly allayed concerns over the United State’s security commitment to Japan and the region by sending a clear message to the U.S.’ alliance partners in Northeast Asia that the U.S. remains committed to the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Moreover, strong messaging concerning North Korea’s ICBM and nuclear development, an explicit reiteration that the Senkaku islands fall under security guarantees of Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty and an overt condemnation of China’s perceived unconstructive behavior in the East China and South China Seas has left Japan and other Northeast Asian countries, for better or worse, with a much clearer picture of their bilateral relations going forward under a Trump presidency.
Noticeably absent from the discussions during Abe and Mattis’ visits, and in Trump’s East Asian strategy, has been any mention of Southeast Asian countries, in particular, those that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. The oblique references to the July 2016 ruling by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, which rejected Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, during discussions in Japan offered little to smaller countries in Southeast Asia with no capacity to counter China’s perceived assertive behavior in the disputed waters.
Considering the asymmetric relationship Southeast Asian countries have with China in the economic and security realms, and the challenges this reality poses for them in terms of making progress in their territorial disputes with China, many see Japan-Southeast Asian strategic partnerships and Japan’s multifaceted relationship with the U.S. as interrelated, synergistic and a boon to their security anxieties. South Korea’s silence on issues in the South China Sea, despite sharing many of the same concerns as Japan over freedom of navigation and open resource and trade routes through the South China Sea, leads Southeast Asian countries to view their security through the lens of the quality, commitment and strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
There are several reasons for this. First, Southeast Asian nations (excluding landlocked Cambodia and Laos) see the Japan-U.S. alliance as a relationship that has non-tangential benefits from a strong and confident Japan that is not concerned about abandonment or about the U.S.’ commitment to the alliance. Fear of abandonment would push Japan to divert valuable resources to the normalization and expansion of their military, rather than expanding the quality and quantity of their strategic partnerships in the region. This would be a loss for Southeast Asian states that view strategic partnerships as comprehensive arrangements where security is not the focus of the relationships.
To illustrate, the Japan-Vietnam, Japan-Malaysia and Japan-Indonesia strategic partnerships link economic partnership to maritime affairs, which include economic assistance but also the “seeking of a new cooperation mechanism between littoral States and user States for enhancement of safety, security and environmental protection.”
Second, Trump’s transactional diplomacy and his interest in a more forceful approach to U.S.-China relations mean that despite tweet diplomacy and pre-election rhetoric, the U.S. will continue to bolster its military commitment in the region. We have already seen this with a commitment by the U.S. to upgrade and build facilities on Philippine military bases as well as a continuation of military ties with the Philippines.
Moreover, with the Japan-U.S. alliance as the cornerstone of Japanese security policy in the region, Japan, both out of necessity and self-interest, will need to step up its commitment under a Trump administration that is inclined to demand more from its alliance partners.
Based on that calculus, countries in Southeast Asia with territorial disputes with China, while disappointed with the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, view Trump’s harsh criticism of Chinese trade practices and support for a tougher line when it comes to trade policy and China as a development that can be leveraged.
It’s true that countries in the region may have preferred that the U.S. and Japan both be tethered to the region economically through the TPP, an initiative that had geopolitical, economic and security ramifications. However Southeast Asian nations see Japan strengthening relations with the U.S., the potential advent of a bilateral trade agreement between Japan and the U.S., and efforts by Japan to, at a minimum, find a way to resurrect the TPP with the remaining 11 members or, more optimistically, to convince the U.S. to agree to a recrafted (and renamed) agreement that brings in more intraregional and potentially extra regional partners, as developments that help them mitigate the precarious balancing act they face when dealing with their economic relationship and security concerns with China.
With this in mind, Southeast Asian countries, as well as China, South Korea and Japan, have focused not only on the political dynamics of the Trump-Abe meetings but also on the explicit outcomes of the visit. Importantly, they will pay special attention to whether Trump’s approach to the region eschews diplomacy for a bolstered military approach, or whether Trump and Abe will be able to create the broad framework for a bilateral agreement that includes economy and trade, security, cybersecurity and a synergistic cooperation at the bilateral level and in international organizations that can be used as a template for rethinking and recreating the Indo-Pacific regional architecture.
To do this, Abe and Trump will need to find a way to make seemingly incompatible agendas meet, namely the U.S. president’s “America First” principles, Japan’s regional security concerns and commitment to regional and global leadership in multilateral institutions, and the economic and security concerns of Southeast Asian countries.
At the security level, Abe and Southeast Asian countries should be relieved by the explicit support for Japan’s sovereignty claims, commitment to the alliance and the initiative to form a Security Consultative Committee (two plus two) meeting that includes each country’s foreign and defense ministers. At the economic level, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence have agreed to meet and initiate an agenda that meets the needs of both countries.
Against the backdrop of the 19th Party Congress and the selection of China’s next Standing Committee, this template must not be seen to be containing China. It would elicit a strong nationalist response demanding action in the South or East China Seas that would affect the economic and security interests of stakeholders in Southeast Asia as well as Northeast Asia. To do this, a clear message must be sent to Beijing that the U.S. and Japan, while concerned with China’s behavior in the international arena, seek to enhance economic and security cooperation that includes countries in Southeast Asia and aims to bring stability and predictability to the region by stressing international cooperation and rules-based relationships.
Stephen R. Nagy is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at International Christian University.