Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks at a press conference in Jakarta on October 21.

The new Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, took advantage of his first overseas tour to consolidate a diplomacy marked by an unspoken distrust of China. In Indonesia, Tuesday, October 20, Mr. Suga spoke of the principle of a region “Free and open indo-pacific”, a key expression of the concern aroused by Beijing’s attitude on territorial issues in the East and South China Seas, but also in Hong Kong and Taiwan. With his host, President Joko Widodo, he insisted on bilateral cooperation on security issues in the region.

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The day before, in Vietnam, Mr. Suga had underlined the “Strong opposition from Japan” at “Any behavior that exacerbates tensions in the South China Sea”, and called on the countries concerned by the disputes in this maritime zone “Not to use force or utter threats but to work for a peaceful settlement based on international law”. His Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, praised Japan, “Global power actively contributing to regional peace, stability and prosperity”.

Transfer of military equipment

China has never been explicitly mentioned but, observes Kuni Miyake, former diplomat and adviser to the Japanese government, “It is clear that she was the elephant in the china shop”. Mr. Suga continues on the path traced by his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who also made his first trip abroad in 2013 to Vietnam. A fervent promoter of the Indo-Pacific zone concept, Mr. Abe spoke of the importance of maintaining maritime spaces “Open, free and in peace”.

The context of 2020 forced the new head of the Japanese government to go further than his predecessor. In addition to the growing trade tensions between Beijing and Washington, there is an intensification of Chinese claims in a region essential for the Japanese economy and the first theater of Sino-Japanese rivalry.

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At the same time, tensions are mounting between Tokyo and Beijing around the disputed islets, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, in the East China Sea. Two Chinese government ships cruised for more than fifty-seven hours from October 11 to 14 in what Japan considers its territorial waters around the islands, unheard of.

With his tour, Mr. Suga shows that Tokyo wants to strengthen its links with key players in Southeast Asia on these geopolitical questions. In addition to strengthening economic exchanges and the promise of significant aid to get out of the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Japan will accelerate transfers of military equipment to Vietnam, which had already announced, in August, the purchase of six Japanese surveillance vessels, for 292 million euros. With Indonesia, the Japanese Prime Minister wants to relaunch a “2 + 2” framework – suspended since 2015 – of meetings between the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries.

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