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Japan to help ASEAN states secure coasts amid South China Sea tensions

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (内閣官房内閣広報室/WikiCommons)
October 26, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Tokyo has agreed to supply Southeast Asian governments with patrol boats – Indonesia and Vietnam in particular – so they can secure their coasts amid tensions in the South China Sea, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in Jakarta on Wednesday.

Japan strongly supports preservation of the rule of law in international waterways and is troubled by some recent activities in the South China Sea that go against maritime law, the new prime minister said.

“Japan will support measures against illegal fishing by providing assistance in the form of patrol boats to ASEAN countries, including Indonesia and Vietnam,” Suga told a news conference in Jakarta as he wrapped up a visit to both countries – his first foreign trip since he succeeded Shinzo Abe as prime minister in mid-September.

“Peace and prosperity can be achieved in the region only if we implement the rule of law that allows everyone freedom and openness, but there have been actions breaching this law in the South China Sea and we’re watching with concern,” he said, apparently alluding to escalating Sino-U.S. tensions over the contested waterway.

Suga said that Japan strongly opposes the use of force to solve any disputes or settle any claims.

“Japan rejects any action and movement that escalates tensions in the South China Sea,” he said, urging countries to refrain from using “force and intimidation.”

However, Japan’s efforts towards a free, peaceful and open Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean should not be construed as a slight against any one nation, the prime minister said.

“For Japan, an Indo-Pacific that is free and open is not aimed at any one country.”

On Tuesday, Suga had said that Tokyo supported ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook because of its many fundamental similarities to Japan’s vision.

He also specifically addressed China’s criticism of The Quad – an informal strategic forum of four Indo-Pacific democracies: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took aim at the U.S. government, saying it was seeking an “Indo-Pacific NATO” with The Quad.

“We are open to cooperate with any country that shares our outlook and there’s no intention to create an Indo-Pacific NATO,” Suga said.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Japanese media reported that Japan’s Fisheries Agency had flagged a recent surge in Chinese fishing boats in the country’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.

The rise of Chinese vessels was seen in the Yamatotai fishing grounds located in the center of the Sea of Japan, according to a report by the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily newspaper.

A record 102 orders to leave the EEZ had been issued to Chinese fishing boats this year as of Oct. 16, a significant increase over the 89 and 12 of 2018 and 2019, the Japan Coast Guard said.

Boosting defense ties

Japan has been ramping up its engagement in Southeast Asia, especially by bolstering its defense and civilian ties with countries whose borders extend into the South China Sea.

After talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Tuesday, Suga agreed to accelerate talks on the export of defense hardware and transfer of technology to Indonesia.

On Monday, while in Vietnam, Suga agreed in principle to Tokyo supplying Hanoi with military equipment. In August, Japan signed its first major defense export deal, the sale of advanced long-range surveillance radar to the Philippines.

And earlier this year, Japan promised to supply the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) with coastal defense vessels, Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service,.

Bakamla and the Japan Coast Guard also signed a cooperation agreement in 2019, he said.

“Since then, various cooperation programs have been implemented, including to increase the capacity of Bakamla,” he said.

Faizasyah said the cooperation deal had nothing to do with the South China Sea issue, although Indonesia had in recent years and on multiple occasions detected Chinese fishing or coast guard ships in its EEZ off the Natuna Islands.

These islands lie in the southern reaches of the South China Sea, an area that Indonesia calls the Natuna Sea. The latest such incursion took place in September, in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

In its protest to the Chinese government about the ship, Indonesia reiterated that it rejected China’s so-called Nine-Dash Line, which Beijing uses to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea, and that the Indonesian government has no overlapping claims with Beijing in its EEZ.

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.

America’s top diplomat to visit Indonesia

Meanwhile, in its latest push to engage Southeast Asia for its support on the South China Sea, the U.S. announced on Wednesday that Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo would visit Indonesia during a five-nation tour from Oct. 25-30.

At a press briefing in Washington on Wednesday, Pompeo said that in addition to bilateral issues, he would discuss how Indonesia and the U.S. could cooperate toward a free and open Indo-Pacific, in the face of what he described as a Chinese threat to Southeast Asian countries’ sovereignty.

“[I]t’s no surprise that the United States firmly believes that it is in Southeast Asia … that it’s in their best interest to ensure that their sovereignty is protected against the continued efforts to encroach upon their basic rights – their maritime rights, their sovereign rights, their ability to conduct business in the way that they want to inside of their country that the Chinese Communist Party continues to threaten,” Pompeo said, according to a transcript from the State Department.

“I know the Indonesians share our desire to make sure there’s a free and open Indo-Pacific, and we want to make sure they know they have a capable, willing partner in the United States of America.”