Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid out an assertive foreign policy agenda, saying he hoped to accelerate maritime aid to Vietnam amid its territorial standoff with China and host Vladimir Putin this year despite the Russian president’s isolation from the West.
Beijing‘s “unilateral drilling activities” for oil in waters claimed also by Hanoi have led to “heightening of tensions,” Mr. Abe told The Wall Street Journal in an interview Friday. “We will never tolerate the change of status quo by force or coercion,” added the Japanese leader, who has assiduously courted Southeast Asian leaders during the past year and offered himself as a counterweight to China’s muscle-flexing.
As part of his broader strategy to rearrange the region’s power balance, Mr. Abe also signalled a desire to keep alive his diplomatic overtures to Russia. He condemned Russia’s annexation of portions of Ukraine and noted that Japan has imposed sanctions in coordination with the U.S. and Europe. But he made clear that he also hoped to maintain the dialogue he has intensified through five summit meetings with Mr. Putin, more than Mr. Abe has had with any other head of state.
“Regarding the visit to Japan by President Putin, I agreed with the president that we should carry it out in autumn of this year,” Mr. Abe said. The two leaders have agreed to accelerate talks over a long-elusive peace treaty from World War II. Mr. Abe hopes to win return of Japanese islands seized at the end of the war, get further access to Russian energy and win a new partner in his bid to contain China.
Mr. Putin was less welcoming to Japan, however, telling foreign journalists Saturday that Tokyo’s sanctions against Russia surprised him and left him unsure whether Japan was ready for talks.
Mr. Abe’s remarks came a day before tensions flared anew in Japan’s dispute with China over a small group of islands in the East China Sea as well as the surrounding airspace. Twice on Saturday, Chinese fighter jets flew perilously close to Japanese reconnaissance craft, leading both governments to file protests. Japan said China’s actions were “meant to intimidate,” while China said Japan had “carried out dangerous actions, in serious violation of international laws.”
The weekend exchange underscored a theme of Mr. Abe’s administration—that the region around Japan is increasingly dangerous, and that Tokyo has no choice but to embrace a more muscular foreign policy in response. Since taking office in December 2012, Mr. Abe, 59 years old, has tried to remake the image of a country long defined by passive diplomacy and its role as a junior ally to the U.S.
As part of that campaign, Mr. Abe on Friday will deliver the keynote speech to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore, the first Japanese prime minister to do so.
But Mr. Abe has struggled at times to sell his agenda. In mid-May he announced plans to move forward with a proposal to reinterpret Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution in a way that would loosen some of the tight restrictions on Japan’s military. His goal is to make Japan a more equal partner with the U.S. in policing Asia, a change the American military has encouraged as China boosts its defence spending while the Pentagon faces cutbacks.
“It’s difficult for the general public to understand. And there is strong opposition,” Mr. Abe acknowledged.
His administration has been unusually stable and popular after Japan endured a series of weak, short-lived prime ministers. After two election victories, the coalition led by his ruling Liberal Democratic Party controls majorities in both houses of parliament. But his power and popularity stem mainly from his “Abenomics” program to end Japan’s long economic slump.
Asked to define how he would enhance Japan’s ability to support American troops in the region, the prime minister seemed to have trouble crafting a message that would satisfy Washington without alarming his dovish coalition partner, the New Komeito Party. “It is very difficult for me to respond in a concrete way,” he said, adding that “we will be discussing and reviewing how we can respond to various situations that may arise in waters close to Japan.”
Still, Mr. Abe is moving to step up Japan’s role. He has repeatedly issued public statements supporting the Philippines and Vietnam in their territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, suggesting a similarity to Japan’s own standoff in the East China Sea.
That has drawn rebukes from China. “The real purpose of Japan is to be involved in the South China Sea dispute to pursue its own hidden political end,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei Friday. “We urge the Japanese side to stop all provocative words and deeds.”
Mr. Abe has also extended modest, but symbolically significant, maritime aid to countries facing off with China. In December, Japan provided 10 patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard, and it announced talks that same month for similar aid to Vietnam.
Hanoi has been trying to beef up its military firepower and has sought to persuade the U.S. to lift a ban on sales of lethal weapons.
In the interview, Mr. Abe said he had met Vietnam’s deputy prime minister, Vu Duc Dam, the previous day and was told that Vietnam “would certainly like to request the provision of the patrol boats as soon as possible.” Mr. Abe said he, too, wants to accelerate the process.
In recent weeks, the standoff between Vietnam and China has turned physical, with vessels ramming each other and water cannons fired. Mr. Abe wouldn’t say if he envisioned the Japanese-made boats being deployed in that confrontation. “We are considering providing the boats based upon the view that they will be helpful in bringing about stability and peace in that region,” he said.
But, he added, “the boats aren’t built yet, so it’s not that they’ll be ready tomorrow.”Source: Wall Street Journal – “Abe’s Strategy: Rearrange Region’s Power Balance”
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