Just a decade ago, only fantasists would have dreamed up headlines such as “Japan, Indonesia Strengthen Defense Ties,” or “Australia-Japan Military Ties Are a ‘Quasi-Alliance.'” The common perception that Tokyo was utterly dependent on its alliance with Washington, and failed to take any initiative to reshape its security relations in Asia, was not inaccurate. No longer, however, can the changes on Asia’s geopolitical chessboard be ignored.

The driver of all this change, of course, is China. Its rapid military development, combined with a coercive approach to regional disputes, has alarmed its neighbors, particularly in Southeast Asia. Those smaller nations find themselves with limited options to protect their interests, and by default, have waited and hoped for the United States to play a larger role. Yet many of them, while welcoming the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia, have been disappointed with the lack of substance behind it.

Into this gap Japan has gingerly stepped. Tokyo cannot play the same security role in Asia that Washington does, nor does it want to. What it is seeking, however, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is to slowly reshape regional security relations. The goal, in effect, is to create a de facto coalition against China, so as to make Beijing temper its behavior.

The latest example of this approach is this week’s announcement between Prime Minister Abe and new Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Jokowi, as the Indonesia leader is known, visited Tokyo for his first state trip as president. That alone is a sign of Japan’s influence in Southeast Asia and the concern over China. While in Tokyo, Jokowi and Abe announced an enhanced security relationship, particularly on maritime issues, where the two both face challenges from China. In this, Abe is following up on a pact with Australia to co-produce advanced submarine technology (which has had a rocky start), the selling of maritime patrol vessels to Malaysia and the Philippines, and a deepening of defense ties with India.

None of this is to suggest a formal alliance, nor a NATO-type coalition of forces. What Abe is doing, however, is making it clear that Japan is a potential security partner to nations throughout the region, offering an alternative to simply acceding to Beijing’s policies. Over time, the weight of this community of democratic nations may well lead to a permanent change in the perception of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, if not the actuality of it. Washington would be well advised to start taking advantage of the initiative of its key Asian ally, and the willingness of other nations to begin thinking of how to take the initiative in Asia’s great game.

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