Growing rivalry between Japan and China over their influence in the region offers Southeast Asian leaders the perfect opportunity to cozy up to both parties and extract development funds for their nations.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, winding up a three-day visit on Nov. 17, is the latest leader to play the balancing act between Tokyo and Beijing.
His meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Nov. 16 resulted in an agreement to provide Malaysia with two secondhand patrol vessels, each about 90 meters in length.
This will give Kuala Lumpur more leverage in trying to counter China’s more assertive presence in the South China Sea, where it is locked in a territorial dispute with Beijing over the Spratly Islands.
At a joint news conference with Abe, Najib mentioned the provision of the patrol vessels and made clear his intention to maintain a close cooperative relationship with Abe in the future.
Najib also touched upon Abe’s intention to push Shinkansen bullet train technology for a planned high-speed railway project linking the Malaysian capital and Singapore, and acknowledged that it ranked uppermost on the Japanese government’s agenda with Malaysia.
While Abe said that issues surrounding the South China Sea were of interest to the entire global community, Najib adroitly avoided any direct mention of that region, apparently out of consideration for Beijing.
Najib has been noticeably restrained in his comments on a ruling in July by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague that rejected China’s claims to economic rights across large swaths of the South China Sea.
He visited China from late October, which resulted in Beijing pledging $33 billion (3.6 trillion yen) in development assistance. During the visit, Najib also agreed to grant a contract to a Chinese company for the construction of a railway on the eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula as well as to purchase four surveillance vessels.
China is said to also have an interest in the high-speed railway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Other Southeast Asian nations leaders have taken a similar course.
Before making his first visit to Japan in late October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte went to China. He has tried to distance his nation from its long-time ally the United States and said he wanted to strengthen relations with China.
That led Beijing to offer official development assistance totaling 654.5 billion yen as well as a loan of 327.2 billion yen from the Bank of China for the construction of airports and railways.
Likewise, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi first visited China before coming to Japan in early November.
Japanese officials are well aware that those nations are playing Japan off against China.
Najib’s visit came about as a result of earnest lobbying on the part of Japanese officials from late October, according to sources involved in Japan-Malaysia ties.
Part of those efforts involved delivering a letter from Abe to the Malaysian leader. Having Najib visit after his trip to China was intended to allow for a reconfirmation of cooperation between Japan and Malaysia in dealing with South China Sea issues as well as to directly pitch Shinkansen technology to the Malaysian leader.
(This article was written by Hajimu Takeda in Tokyo and Etsushi Tsuru in Singapore.)