Will we see more of this in the future? (of course with a different Japanese PM)

In the last few years one of the more intriguing but subtle trends in Japan’s security policy evolution are the tentative moves towards what could be called “alliance diversification.” It may be a coincidence but this is something that has seemingly sped up since the DPJ has come to power, with stronger relations being developed on a number of levels, particularly the security and political levels, with countries that Japan traditionally eschewed robust non-economic relations with –  Japan seemed for some time to have been happy developing relations with other powers through the US-Japan alliance, and had taken a somewhat cautious approach to raising its profile, especially given residual resentment in East Asia about Japan’s past military misadventures. Korea and Vietnam, and to lesser degrees Australia and India spring to mind as countries where Japan has been increasing the range and depth of its security relations in a more independent fashion in recent times. While these initial moves are very tentative indeed, it seems to me that this could be the start of a long-term trend that is in line with recent moves in Japan’s security policy to increase its freedom of action. Maybe a more Asia-centric variation of John Foster Dulles’ discarded “Pacific Pact” will come to fruition after all?

In line with this line of thought, of recent note is a meeting between Japanese PM Kan Naoto and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). The two leaders, as would be expected, reflected on the devastating tsunamis that have hit each country in the last 7 years, with SBY communicating that Indonesia had not “forgotten” about Japan’s assistance, including the SDF’s, in the past when Indonesia has been in trouble. They pledged to continuing working together on issues of global warming, and Indonesia supported Kan’s move towards increased energy security through exploitation of renewable sources. To some degree where Japan goes Indonesia might well also go in terms of energy security, although it should be noted Indonesia does have quite a few more energy options than Japan – that is if Indonesia can hold on to these options. Indonesia, perhaps somewhat absurdly given the lack of infrastructure elsewhere in the nation, was thinking of looking to Japan before for nuclear power infrastructure. Needless to say with Japan’s own problems recently, and Indonesia’s equally challenging seismic and geological landscape, this is looking less like an attractive option. It should be noted that Indonesia already provides Japan with a significant amount of natural gas and Indonesia said it will look to provide more in light of the recent nuclear incident at Fukushima Dai-ichi. President SBY in return called for more Japanese investment into Indonesia, including for renewable resources, as well as in the infrastructure and manufacturing areas.

However, in the security realm the recent meeting was also noteworthy. According to the Japan Times:

Yudhoyono, who will chair summits related to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, and Kan are expected to agree on boosting bilateral ties through regular strategic talks on political, economic and security issues and also to cooperate in addressing regional and global challenges.

Indonesia is, after the Philippines and Vietnam one of the more concerned parties in regards to the South China Sea and territorial disputes. While Indonesia does not have an explicit territorial claim to any of the Spratly Islands, Chinese claims to the whole of the South China Sea area overlap with a portion of Indonesia’s claimed maritime EEZ and in particular an area believed to be particularly rich in natural gas deposits.

While the US has been trying to develop closer security relations with democratic Indonesia’s government, given US support of the repressive Suharto regime and a perception in Indonesia that the US is not persecuting a war on terrorism but a war on Islam (or at least is not making it sufficiently clear that it is not targeting muslims), then any self-interested Indonesian government needs to keep an appropriate distance from the US, and the US military in particular. However, Indonesia has a significant problem – in per capita terms it has rather low expenditure on the armed services – in fact it can only afford to pay the HR costs by allowing the military to have a “dual function” orientation where regional military units are allowed to be involved in economic affairs. The military is poorly equipped and almost exclusively focused on internal security and disaster relief. And even then is under-resourced given the geography of, and internal divisions in, Indonesia.  President SBY is looking to reform and professionalize the Indonesian military, redirect focus away from the army which is really the only game in town in Indonesia, to both bolster its external defense capabilities given recent developments in the South China Sea, and also to increase civilian control over the military (ironically, only a well respected ex-military man such as SBY would dare touch this). Clearly however, this is not going to be a short-term change given Indonesia’s other pressing needs, not least of all being economic development and outside help from an appropriate partner in political, economic realms, and in aspects of both human and military security, will certainly be appreciated.

So it is not without some interest, or even merit, that today a Nikkei editorial proposes (jp) a deepening of strategic Japan-Indonesian ties, mainly in light of increasing suspicions of Chinese activity in the South China Sea. While the US is limited in developing a wide-ranging relationship with Indonesia, Japan could well develop such a comprehensive partnership with a country many identify as having significant future potential. A strong relationship with Indonesia on its own merits would be of significant value for Japan as well as likely to positively increase Japan’s profile in South East Asia (and potentially throughout the Islamic world). Of course there are plenty of things that Japan should be wary of, for example, being involved in a a strategic competition that undermines ASEAN cohesiveness (although some suggest that that is already happening), which could backfire. And exactly what kind of security coordination would be engaged in would have to be thought about very carefully. Indonesia is after not likely to radically alter its current approach to security, which is an ASEAN-centred diplomacy, and if all else fails, a UN-centred collective security policy (Indonesia is a significant contributor to UN PKOs – in fact it is considered a constitutional responsibility). Indonesia is not a fan of loud, clearly defined military alliances. Which in a way, would suit Japan just fine.

Edit: The Yomiuri (en) has also offered its support for the idea of strengthened Indonesia-Japan ties.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 51 post(s) on Japan Security Watch