Suga signals commitment to ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ with Vietnam and Indonesia visits

By making Vietnam and Indonesia his first overseas ports of call, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga signalled that he intends to adhere closely to his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy. Seeing that occur so clearly and so early in his term is good news.

Suga was sending essentially the same message, albeit with a different emphasis, when he made his first leader-level phone calls to his ‘Quad’ counterparts, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, before setting off to Southeast Asia.

It was equally clear in Tokyo’s announcement that a planned trip by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, to prepare for President Xi Jinping’s oft-delayed visit to Japan, would not be taking place. One Japanese government source said, ‘We are well aware that Beijing wants Wang to visit Japan at a relatively early date. But considering the various circumstances, it’s still too early.’ As Australian ministers and officials are well aware, it is usually the Chinese side that delays planned meetings until ‘circumstances’ change in the other state to Beijing’s favour.

Sound strategic reasoning lay behind Suga’s decision to visit Hanoi and Jakarta, which in the former’s case went beyond its status as this year’s ASEAN chair. Vietnam is emerging as arguably Japan’s most like-minded security partner in Southeast Asia, at least when it comes to geopolitics. And it’s noteworthy that Suga was following in Abe’s footsteps; in 2012, he also made Vietnam his first destination after returning to office for a second, and longer, term. Suga’s choice of Indonesia no doubt hinged on both its geographical centrality in the Indo-Pacific and its sheer size and relative weight, in economic and strategic terms, in Southeast Asia.

Suga’s overarching theme throughout his trip was Japan’s enduring commitment to playing a major role in a region that it sees as critical to its vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. In both countries, he focused most of his public remarks on the two areas which Japan sees as critical to realising that vision: collaboration on regional security, and economic development through increased investment in manufacturing and development cooperation in such fields as infrastructure.

His messaging was well calibrated to resonate with two nations that have already benefited greatly from Japanese investment and soft loans and that are anxious to attract more as part of their post-Covid-19 recovery plans, especially as Japanese companies increasingly shift their investment priorities from China to other parts of the region. Vietnam is a popular destination; half of the 30 Japanese companies that have received government funding to move factories to Southeast Asia have chosen Vietnam. In Jakarta, Suga’s key announceables went to trade opportunities for Indonesian products as well as Japan’s readiness to keep working with Indonesia to address its infrastructure needs, notably in the transport sector.

Even more salient given current circumstances was Suga’s commitment of ¥50 billion (A$670 million) in soft loans, ostensibly to boost Indonesia’s disaster response capacity, but more specifically to support its Covid-19 response. Suga also committed to explore opening a travel corridor to revive commercial contact.

In terms of regional security, Suga’s restatement of Japan’s support for ASEAN’s ‘Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ (a document essentially of Indonesia’s drafting) would likewise have struck a favourable chord in both capitals, but probably most mellifluously in Jakarta. Indonesia’s foreign policy circles will interpret it as a reaffirmation of ASEAN’s centrality in the management of regional strategic affairs. They will also choose to interpret Suga’s pronouncements as endorsing Indonesia’s hopes and aspirations for its strategy of managing China’s ambitions through a web of cooperation and normative diplomacy. And they will have taken even greater heart from Suga’s denial that Japan favoured establishing an Asian NATO, notwithstanding its participation in the Quad. Hanoi will have found Suga’s diplomatic condemnation of the escalating tensions in the South China Sea and commitment to work with ASEAN in law- and rules-based management of the disputes a particularly welcome message.

At the same time, both Hanoi and Jakarta no doubt greatly appreciated Suga’s in-principle agreement to provide both countries with tangible defence support in the form of materiel and transfers of technology. Vietnam has already benefited from Japan’s maritime awareness capability and training, and is interested in maintaining and expanding its range of maritime surveillance equipment. Importantly, Suga promised support in coastal security and maritime safety in Southeast Asia, a particularly helpful move given that the South China Sea is often exploited by illegal fishing and increasingly China’s illegitimate trespassing into other countries’ territorial waters.

Indonesia would be no less interested in Japanese cooperation in this domain considering China’s readiness to have its coastguard vessels shepherd Chinese trawlers while they plunder the fisheries inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands. Likewise, the two sides’ intention to expedite the second round of their ‘2+2’ meeting of foreign and defence ministers seems aimed at flagging to Beijing that both Tokyo and Jakarta have more on their minds than just recitation of development cooperation and institution strengthening documented in the ASEAN Outlook.

That said, the prospect of Indonesia wanting that message to be as pointed as those emanating from Japan’s equivalent arrangements with its Quad partners, and as clearly as Vietnam might be comfortable with, remains slim. Already Indonesian politicians and analysts have generally been quick to respond to Chinese commentary alleging that the visit was contrived to contain Beijing’s influence by reaffirming Indonesia’s traditional ‘free and active’ foreign policy, which essentially precludes it from aligning itself with anyone. An exception was a prominent member of Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto’s political party, Gerindra, who reportedly remarked that China’s behaviour in the South China Sea meant that the time had come for Indonesia to ‘ally with America and Japan so that there is a balance in the region’. However much that sentiment reflects Jakarta’s justifiable anger over Beijing’s actions in Indonesia’s northern waters, and however appealing the idea might be to Washington, Tokyo and Canberra, such a strong formulation isn’t likely to gain policy traction with President Joko Widodo and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi anytime soon.

In the final analysis, Suga’s trip may have delivered more diplomatic signals than concrete statements, particularly in the security domain. But it showed, as he underlined himself, that he understands the importance of personal exchanges and gestures in foreign affairs. In a region where such intangibles register especially strongly, he gave a masterclass in diplomacy and soft power from which some other leaders would do well to learn.