The emerging South China Sea security alliance and ASEAN-centricity

A new security triangle of treaty allies Japan, the United States of America and Australia is emerging to persuade all Asian countries to abide by international rules, Ernest Bower writes.

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On 29 February 2016, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin signed an historic defence pact with Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines, Kazuhide Ishikawa. The agreement itself is not remarkable; it established a framework to support Japan’s supply of defence equipment and technology, and provides for joint research and development. However, the deal’s historic and geopolitical impact is significant. It is a signal of the emergence of a foundational security structure rising from the South China Sea: the triangle connecting treaty allies Japan, the United States and Australia.

The Manila agreement was made possible by Japan’s new, more proactive defence policy and Southeast Asia’s desire for balancing factors to offset China’s apparent determination to change the facts on, above and under the South China Sea.

The Philippines is at the leading edge of an emerging consensus in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that recognises China is focused on asserting its sovereign interests in the South China Sea, even if it means sacrificing the sovereign claims of its neighbours and a dip in its international reputation.

There were some surprises from recent polling of Southeast Asian perceptions of Japan and other countries. Both the Lowy Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies found Southeast Asians at both popular and elite levels welcome an increased role for Japan in Asia, in both economic and security spheres. 

Japan ranks at the top of favourability ratings of major countries, followed by the United States and India, while China’s rankings have markedly diminished since their highs immediately following the Asian financial crisis, when Beijing engaged the region with new and thoughtful economic support, through increased trade, loans and the beginning of some investment.

ASEAN’s favourable perceptions of Japan’s new military role coincide with a strong demand for more foundational and sustained US engagement in the region. The Philippines, along with Vietnam, is clearly at the most vocal end of the ASEAN spectrum supporting this objective, but even countries more susceptible to China’s economic levers, such as Cambodia and Laos, are privately supportive of the need for balancing Beijing. The comprehensive Joint Statement from US President Barack Obama and the 10 ASEAN leaders in February demonstrates this.

In fact, the Japan-Philippines defence pact signed in February followed on the heels of the Philippine Supreme Court’s nod of approval for the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows for a significant deepening of US-Philippine security cooperation.

The timing of the Japan-Philippines defence pact is not an accident. Tokyo is cooperating closely with Washington and Canberra in a coordinated effort to strengthen ASEAN’s defence and security capabilities.

Australia has strengthened bilateral defence cooperation with the Philippines, and will actively support the American and Japanese platforms to contribute to the hardening of the Philippines’ defence capabilities.

This practical US-Japan-Australia trilateral cooperation will continue to build over the next decade and levels of engagement seen in the Philippines will be carefully adjusted for other ASEAN countries. This is a pattern that will be repeated, in various forms, throughout the region.

This cooperation will also have a significant security policy impact. The three treaty allies are not only investing in their alliance-based cooperation, but working to build the ASEAN-centric security architecture in the ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) track. The goal is to convince China that its national security interests will be best promoted by participating in regional rule making, abiding by international rules and using its substantial new economic and military power to promote regional security.

India is an important partner in the eventual success of this longer-term strategy. India is a member of the ADMM-Plus structure and the US, Japan and Australia all recognise its vital role, particularly in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Each of the allies are engaging India bilaterally and continuing to explore the core intent of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) initiated by Japan in 2007.  Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia, pulled out of that structure just a year later, expressing concern about Australia’s economic exposure to China.

Economics underpin security in Asia. And Japan’s defence pact with Manila will need to be accompanied by increased economic engagement. President Aquino saw this and has committed Manila to exploring the earliest opportunities to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Of course, Australia, Japan and the US are core TPP members. Other ASEAN countries who are not already members of TPP are considering the strategic factors of membership. This has been a factor in interest expressed by Indonesia  and, to a lesser extent, Thailand.

Japan’s leap forward in its security relationship with the Philippines will be repeated in most ASEAN countries in the coming years. These agreements are part of an innate geopolitical instinct for balancing in Southeast Asia. They also represent the rising of a visible security triangle emerging from the South China Sea: a long-term commitment by Japan, Australia and the United States to promote regional security. 

All these countries know that Asia is the engine of world economic growth for the 21st Century, and that no country is secure unless all major Asian countries agree to make and play by international rules.

Ernest Bower is the President and CEO of Bower Group Asia. He is recognised as one of the world’s leading experts on the Asia Pacific, particularly Southeast Asia. First published in The Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum. Read the orignal article