Japan’s Motegi to meet Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, kicking off Asean tour

Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has started his tour of five Southeast Asian nations and Papua New Guinea in Singapore, and will meet the city state’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday.
Motegi, a trusted lieutenant of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is expected to negotiate the resumption of essential travel between Japan and Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos during his trip.
But while discussions will focus largely on issues relating to the coronavirus pandemic, foreign policy analysts say the South China Sea and Tokyo’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific will also feature in talks.
The visit comes as relations between Japan’s close ally the United States and China worsen over issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea waterway. It has resulted in tit-for-tat consulate closures and sanctions on each others’ officials, while Washington has also moved to ban Chinese social media apps TikTok and WeChat.
Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Meiji University, said Tokyo would be keen to keep the disputed waterway claimed by Beijing, Taiwan, and four Southeast Asian countries in the spotlight at a time when attention in the US is focused on the November presidential elections.
“The countries with a stake in the territorial issue are not able to stand up to China without the support of the US, but President (Donald) Trump is in a difficult position in the elections and will be spending all his time on that problem,” Ito said.
“That means it is in many ways up to Japan to continue the dialogue between the different countries while the US is distracted.”
Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have in recent weeks strongly opposed Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, with Pompeo following up with calls to the foreign ministers of Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, reiterating American support for international law in the disputed waters.
Motegi, who arrived in Singapore on Wednesday, will call on Lee at the Istana, where the office of the Prime Minister and President are located, and attend a lunch hosted by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Singapore and Malaysia formed new cabinets in July and March respectively, and Motegi would exchange views with leaders on the resumption of travel with Japan, as well as on Covid-19 measures and regional developments.
The travel discussions come as Japan has seen a resurgence in coronavirus cases after lifting the nationwide state of emergency in May. The country has reported over 50,000 infections, with Tokyo and Osaka seeing the highest levels of transmission. Singapore also experienced a surge in cases in April, largely related to foreign worker dormitories, but has since seen infection numbers coming down.
Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, said Motegi’s trip underscored the importance Tokyo placed on resuming trade and economic ties with its Asian partners. Apart from their valued trade relations, she said Singapore is also an important diplomatic ally for Japan as it considers its response to Beijing’s recent moves in the South China Sea as well as the situation in Hong Kong.
While Ito said Motegi would be keen to amplify Washington’s message this trip, David Arase, a resident professor of international politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, had a different take.
“Motegi is not in Singapore to represent the US. He is there to advance particular Japanese interests, of which one is to keep the US involved in regional affairs,” he said. “More fundamentally, it is very much in Japan’s own interest to maintain a rules-based maritime security regime throughout the Indo-Pacific.”
Arase added that the coronavirus pandemic has diminished the stature of the two world powers, and a move by Tokyo to take a more proactive approach in shaping the regional environment would “make sense”.
Meanwhile, Dylan Loh, an assistant professor of international studies at Sin…