Japan’s Free Vessels to Natuna: Is It Really Free?

By Rafyoga Jehan Pratama Irsadanar (Photo by Sizuru-commonswiki)

Japan started 2020 with foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu paying an official visit to Viet Nam, Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia on January 5-11. On Japan-Indonesia Strategic Dialogue in Jakarta, Minister Retno welcomed Tokyo’s intention to strengthen the cooperation in various sectors as well as to donate patrol vessels in Natuna Islands, a recently disputed maritime domain against China. Even though many Indonesian media have seen this vessel transfer as a ‘grant’ from Japan, the defense equipment transfer shows a significant leap of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe‘s agenda to further expand its security flex in Southeast Asia. For context, Japan’s foreign policy to Southeast Asia before Shinzo Abe second administration was driven by Fukuda Doctrine, emphasizing ‘heart to heart’ balanced economic cooperation and rejecting military role within the relationship. Since Shinzo Abe reelection in 2012, Japan has been escalating its security maneuver in international cooperation, in which Southeast Asian counterparts welcomed.

Japan Military Export and Transfer to Southeast Asia

Japan’s maritime and defense equipment transfer is not new to Southeast Asia. In 2014, Prime Minister Abe had lifted Japan’s long military export and transfer restriction, allowing Japan to do defense equipment transactions as well as to transfer them to other countries, replacing the self-imposed ban made in 1967. Indonesia did receive patrol vessel donation from Japan in the early 2000s during President Megawati era, but it was done under the Official Development Assistance (ODA) framework instead of any strategic partnership as one in 2020 since Japan was still under the restriction of military equipment transfer. Since the ban relaxation, Japan already leased six patrol boats to Vietnam and donated five units of T-90 patrol aircraft to Philippines, and recently patrol vessel to Indonesia’s Natuna. This article argues that the maritime equipment is not freely given to Indonesia but for an identical purpose; to foster stability in South China Sea, or in other words, to balance China’s power in the disputed area by clarifying Tokyo’s alignment with Jakarta as the biggest maritime power in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Abe’s FOIP

Japan invested a lot of its strategic capital in Southeast Asia for a specific return; to accelerate its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, initiated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016. This assertion emerged as Southeast Asia, with its disputed South China Sea, is the linchpin bridging Indian Ocean to Pacific Ocean. There are obvious reasons why Japan took an extra mile by fortifying its security bond with Indonesia, despite the robust economic multilayer partnerships among both countries. Besides the fact that Indonesia is the biggest maritime power in Southeast Asia, Indonesia also showed an influential leadership in ASEAN maritime policies. It was proven by the ability of Jakarta to lead other ASEAN counterparts to finally draft ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, in harmony with Shinzo Abe Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. By the declaration of ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, Japan showed a great motivation to support the Outlook, as Minister Montegi stated. Seeing a similar vision in achieving maritime stability, Japan will likely escalate its strategic ventures in Southeast Asia. Alongside the point that Indonesia is not the only one receiving defense equipment donation, Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia that Japan has 2+2 ministerial meeting model with. Therefore, it is a clear signal to include a security element to the initially economic-driven cooperation among Jakarta and Tokyo.

In the context of Natuna, the remote island in the northern part of Indonesia, appeared to be one of strategic posts for Japan invested into balance China; a major threat to Japan’s maritime interest as well as to Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. Geopolitically, Natuna is located next to Malacca Strait, the main shipping lane connecting Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and has an abundant resource of gas reserve. As Indonesia is currently attempting to improve the economic as well as defense infrastructure of Natuna, Japan invested in the development of integrated maritime affairs and fisheries center (SKPT). Minister Retno clarified that it has been a long discussion and has nothing to do with the recent stand-off with China. However, Japan’s follow-up plan to transfer defensive vessels showed its concern to balance China in South China Sea, as Tokyo did to other Southeast Asian countries.

Japan and Indonesia have been strong partners for decades, driven by the robust economic motivation of both states. Japan’s maritime defense donation to Indonesia then expanded the spectrum to an intensified security-driven bond to balance China as the source of threat in the maritime domain. Added by the fact that ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific is Jakarta-led initiative, Tokyo felt optimistic that both countries’ cooperation would be further strengthened prospectively both in economic and security sectors.

Rafyoga is Monbukagakusho Scholar at Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies (GSICS), Kobe University, Japan. Prior joining GSICS, he was a research intern and research assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.

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