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Keeping China in mind, Japan and Indonesia Strengthen Ties By Dr. Rajaram Panda

C3S Paper No. 0085/ 2015

The strategic equations among countries in the Indo-Pacific region are undergoing interesting changes. One major driver that is shaping these changes is China’s aggressive posturing on regional issues and the rest of Asia is gearing up to cope with this Chinese challenge as their national interests are coming under threat. In the Northeast Asia, the shadow of history does not go away despite the fact that economic bonhomie between South Korea, Japan and China has remained robust. Despite historical irritants, none of them would be willing to surrender the dividend that has accrued from the economic relationships. Yet, none of them is shy to articulate the grievances that one has against the other. The truism is that the perception is no longer confined to the northeast part of Asia and has embraced the whole of Asia, which is why new equations are emerging in the rest of Asian nations.

One such recent realignment of relations has taken place between Japan and Indonesia following the visit of Indonesian President Joko Widodo to Japan in late March 2015, during which he and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo committed to build up and strengthen a strategic partnership, with focus on maritime security. Japan’s economic engagement with the Southeast Asian nations is not recent. Unlike the history issues that continue to haunt China and Korea, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations do not harbour historical bitterness and have benefitted from Japan’s economic aid and assistance since the 1960s. Indonesia being a core member of the regional grouping also has a special space in Japan’s ASEAN diplomacy.

Since economic issue has assumed primacy, protecting sea-borne trade has emerged as the core of diplomacy in many Asian countries. Understandably, therefore, Widodo and Abe concurred on 23 March in establishing a “Japan-Indonesia Maritime Forum” as early as possible for intergovernmental consultations on maritime safety and security as well as the promotion of maritime industries. This initiative was a part of their ongoing efforts to strengthen their overall strategic partnership and deepen defence ties. It is commonly agreed in many Asian capitals, except in Beijing, that maintaining free and open seas is “essential for regional prosperity.” Indonesia “is eager for Japanese cooperation in coastal patrols.” Like Japan as an island country, Indonesia also comprises of more than 13,000 islands and thus a maritime country. Therefore, Indonesia has been advocating a maritime state vision, placing high priority on such measures as curbing piracy and securing effective management of natural resources. Besides strengthening naval cooperation with India and Vietnam, if Indonesia’s maritime security capabilities are enhanced, Japan’s own capability to boost security in the international sea-lanes, including the Strait of Malacca would have been enhanced. It may be recalled that in 2007, Japan provided Indonesia with three patrol vessels. Indonesia can benefit in harnessing Japan’s knowledge and technology.

In fact, the joint statement issued to strengthen the strategic partnership, of the five areas identified for special attention, cooperation in the maritime domain took the centre stage. As stated, the statement reiterated that that “free, open and stable seas are essential for peace, stability and prosperity of the region and the international community.” To realise this goal, both agreed to establish a Japan-Indonesia Maritime Forum. Indonesia hopes that the forum could be the catalyst in enhancing Indonesia’s coast guard and infrastructure capabilities, besides boosting the maritime industry.

However, the agreement might look impressive but there is no detail available how the forum shall work. Both sides have not agreed about the specifics such as when the first session shall start and who will take part, though participation is expected at high level. Indonesia hopes that in setting up the forum, its doctrine of a new maritime doctrine, dubbed as the poros maritime dunia, or global maritime fulcrum is realised. It appears that the path is now clear for both the countries to promote cooperation by strengthening capacity-building for maritime safety “through technical cooperation including the dispatch of experts, the provision of equipment and financial assistance”. Japan’s previous maritime assistance such as supply of patrol boats to other members of the regional organisation should help to take the Japan-Indonesia ties to a higher plane. Both the countries hope that, as stated in the joint statement, maritime disputes shall be resolved by peaceful means in accordance with international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This would include issue of freedom of navigation and over-flight on the high seas, unimpeded lawful commerce.

Another significant development during Widodo’s visit was the signing a memorandum of understanding concerning bilateral defense cooperation — the first such accord between Tokyo and Jakarta. Abe and Widodo also reached an agreement to hold “two-plus-two” talks between foreign and defense ministers of the two countries soon. The planned talks would be aimed at shoring up cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and the Indonesian military, covering a wide range of fields including defense equipment and technical aspects. Japan has this kind of 2+2 dialogue with India too. This means that other countries are coming on board for coping with common challenges.

In March 2014, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force took part in multinational exercises with ASEAN members participating under the sponsorship of Indonesia. Such defense interchanges help expedite smooth SDF operations overseas, which should be encouraged proactively. An urgent need to lay down a regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which would have binding power between China and ASEAN to prevent maritime dispute was also agreed. Two of the ASEAN member countries – Vietnam and the Philippines – are fiercely in maritime rifts with China, and Japan would expect that Indonesia as an ASEAN member country to support Vietnam and the Philippines. Though Indonesia is ready to contribute towards “reconciliation” over the matter, it needs to articulate its policy more forcefully as economic interests of all, including its own, are at stake.

Indeed, China’s move to intensify its unilateral maritime advances in the East and South China Seas for “changes of the status quo by force” is deemed a challenge common to Japan, the US and ASEAN members and thus should be curbed.  Beijing needs to be urged to cooperate, exercise self-restraint and work together with the countries which have contending claims on the disputed territory without the threat to use force.

Besides agreement on the maritime security issue, trade and investment cooperation between Japan and Indonesia is also improving. Japan agreed to provide about ¥140 billion in yen loans for rapid urban railway network projects and other infrastructure plans in Indonesia. In the ASEAN grouping, Indonesia is a major power, accounting for about 40 percent of the population and gross domestic product of the region. To accelerate its economic growth, Indonesia is keen to bolster relations with both Japan and China and can therefore use this leverage to cast a sobering influence on China’s aggressive stance.

Indonesia’s move to sign a defence agreement and to bolster cooperation in the maritime domain displeases China and raised concern in Beijing. Jakarta already has a military pact with China and now needs to navigate through tricky waters when dispute settlement issues shall arise. Though Indonesia enjoys a more formal military relationship with China – a binding agreement – and has purchased Chinese missiles and other equipment, the defence agreement that Widodo signed with Japan is non-binding, though this would facilitate and increase cooperation in military technology, training and peacekeeping operations, itself a significant boost above the pre-existing defence relationship which was limited to the exchange of military students. The new pact with Japan included exchanging intelligence information, which is what Beijing is not comfortable with.

Since Widodo was to visit China immediately after Japan, he promised his Japanese host that he would raise the contentious South China territorial dispute with China as well. This is because Indonesia knows that resolving the dispute would be in the interest of the region as the region would benefit if peace and stability is maintained. The region’s economic development is also contingent on the region’s stability. Though Japan does not have claims in the South China Sea, it has sovereignty issues on the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, Takeshima, which are controlled by Japan. Being the largest country in Southeast Asia in terms of size and population, Indonesia has adopted a neutral stance on territorial disputes and therefore is a position to play the role of a helpful broker among the claimant countries. It is because of the common security interests that Japan shares with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, Japan has bolstered defence ties. Now with closer military ties with Indonesia, Japan’s defence industry shall compete with South Korean manufacturers of military equipment in the Indonesian market. Facing up to the China challenge, Abe has started loosening restrictions contained in Japan’s pacifist constitution imposed on it by the US after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Japan under Abe seems not bothered about the anxiety that such policy changes are creating in the Korean peninsula and China, which suffered at the hands of Japan’s colonialism in the first half of 20th century. Japan has little option because the perceived threat from China is too intimidating.

(Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, is now an Independent Researcher on Northeast Asia’s security/strategic issues based in New Delhi. E-mail:

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