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Japan - Southeast Asia


Redirecting Strategic Focus in the Age of the Indo-Pacific

Japan and Southeast Asia faced a new regional dynamic in 2017 following the inauguration of President Donald Trump in the United States and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s accommodative foreign policy toward China. US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Philippines’ unwillingness to discuss the 2016 South China Sea arbitration award forced Japan and some Southeast Asian states to redirect their strategic focus. Most Southeast Asian states increasingly welcome Japan’s regional initiatives in trade, security, and development to fill the vacuum created by these policy shifts. Japan has actively emphasized the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” the geographic scope of which goes well beyond East Asia and covers the entire Pacific Ocean to East Africa. This new strategic focus has revitalized Japan’s cooperation with Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, there are serious challenges that Japan needs to overcome, particularly in clarifying ASEAN’s roles in the strategy.

Both Push and Pull: Japan Steps Up in Southeast Asia

Two political surprises in 2016 will affect Japan’s relations with Southeast Asia. The first, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and his subsequent turn toward China, has likely not disturbed Japan’s role as the Philippines’ largest investor, trading partner, and aid donor. However, Duterte’s abrasiveness toward Washington could have a negative effect on the newly-forged Japan-Philippines security partnership and dampen the possibility of triangulating US, Japan, and Philippine cooperation in the South China Sea.  A greater and more long-term impact could be the election of Donald Trump and the resulting uncertainty in US relations with Southeast Asia.  Beyond that broad concern, Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) throws the economic architecture of the Asia-Pacific region into question and could stymie the growth Japan had expected in trade relations with TPP members in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Malaysia. In January 2017, just days before Trump’s inauguration, Prime Minister Abe embarked on a swing through Southeast Asia to make “strategic adjustments” in Japanese relations with the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Two objectives drive Japan’s increasing engagement with Southeast Asia:  stimulating Japanese economic growth through investment in large-scale infrastructure abroad, and supporting regional maritime domain awareness. While Tokyo officially denies any suggestion of rivaling or checking China with these policies, the timing and nature of Japan’s “pivot” to Southeast Asia would suggest otherwise.  The number of “first-ever” Japanese defense initiatives with Southeast Asian countries in the past year, correspond to rising concern in the region over China’s moves in the South China Sea. New developments in regional security relations reflect a revision of Japanese defense guidelines and of the US-Japanese alliance, both of which emphasize greater interaction with regional partners. On the economic side, Japan and China are in direct competition for infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, particularly in Myanmar.  This will likely be the case for the next several years as ASEAN seeks to undergird the ASEAN Economic Community with new transportation grids.

In the early months of 2015 Tokyo has stepped up its engagement with Southeast Asia.   Increasingly concerned with tensions in the South China Sea and the potential for their spillover, Japan has worked with Vietnam and the Philippines to strengthen coast guard and naval capacity.  A new defense agreement with Indonesia, and the establishment of a high-level dialogue on maritime security, underscores a broader worry about China.  To counter China’s economic reach and political influence in the poor states of mainland Southeast Asia, Tokyo has stepped up with a variety of initiatives, including a strategic partnership with Laos.  Although polls indicate very positive views of Japan in Southeast Asia, Tokyo must nevertheless implement new policy initiatives in the region with care, in view of Japan’s own complicated relations with China and a more positive, but no less complicated, relationship with the US.

Tokyo’s Foreign Policy Activism in Southeast Asia 

Contrary to the stereotypical view that Japanese foreign policy is generally passive, reactive, and driven primarily by economics (and Washington), the reality is that Tokyo has sought to exercise diplomatic initiatives in Southeast Asia especially over the past 25 years.  Ironically, Japan plays a larger political role in Southeast Asia than in its more immediate Northeast Asian neighborhood for at least three reasons.

First, unlike its relations with Beijing, Seoul, and Pyongyang, Tokyo’s ties with Southeast Asian states are very much less bedeviled by unresolved issues of history – including an appropriate apology to the victims of Japanese militarism, the “correct” perspectives that should be adopted in textbooks, and a lack of remorse over the past shown by conservative Japanese politicians.  Moreover, the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia was mercifully short (around three years) compared to Tokyo’s lengthy colonization of Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria.  While imperial Japan’s original intention was to incorporate Southeast Asia into a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, it incidentally aided the independence movements in Indonesia and Burma toward the end of World War II; Tokyo’s initial victories against the white colonial regimes in Southeast Asia also shattered the myth of white invincibility and eventually facilitated decolonization in that region.

Second, unlike Russia, China, and the two Koreas, the Southeast Asian states do not have any territorial disputes with Japan.  Shackled by neither the burden of history nor territorial disputes with Tokyo, Southeast Asian countries welcome Japanese investments and ODA (official development assistance) and are thus more open to Japanese diplomatic initiatives, especially if these are also to their advantage.

Third, Southeast Asia as a region does not have intractable security problems of the same magnitude as Northeast Asia: the heavily militarized and divided Korean Peninsula and the potential flashpoint in the Taiwan Strait.  Besides the perennial suspicions of the Chinese and Koreans toward any hint of a larger Japanese political and military role, the problems in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait are simply too big for Japan to chew.  In this regard, Southeast Asia is a more conducive environment for Japan to pursue its diplomatic initiatives, especially when the ASEAN states are less hostile toward Tokyo and inter-state relations within the region are less confrontational and warlike.

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