Authors

Kei Koga

Nanyang Technological University
Photo of Kei Koga

Kei Koga is assistant professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and affiliated with S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU. He has published on topics that include East Asian security, US and Japanese foreign policies, the US-Japan alliance, and ASEAN. His recent publication includes a book “Reinventing Regional Security Institutions in Asia and Africa” (Routledge 2017), and his articles appear in International Studies Review (by International Studies Association), Chinese Journal of International Politics, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Journal of Contemporary China, and Pacific Review. He received his Ph.D. in International Relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

Articles by Kei Koga
A Diplomatic “New Normal” in the Indo-Pacific Region?

Japan-Southeast Asia relations were relatively stable, despite COVID-19, as summarized by three trends: emphasizing multilateral actors; prioritizing enhancement of bilateral relations with two countries (Indonesia and Vietnam); and the synthesis of Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific “vision” (FOIP) and ASEAN’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Japan and Southeast Asian states managed to achieve tangible cooperation, as illustrated by the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). Yet, strategic dynamics among Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States are shifting because of changes in Japanese and US political leadership. Japan, the most reliable partner for Southeast Asia in the Trump era, seemingly faced a relative decline in the importance attached by Southeast Asia because of the United States’ renewed commitment to the region. In the context of this new diplomatic reality, the foremost challenges that Japan and Southeast Asia will likely face in 2021-2022 are Myanmar and ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

Great Disruption: Uncertainty over the Indo-Pacific

Japan and Southeast Asia faced completely different situations in 2019 and 2020 because of the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Japan-Southeast Asia relations were positive. One of the major developments among Southeast Asian states was the creation of the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP), which resonated with the principles in Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept; as a result, Japan expressed explicit support for AOIP. Functionally, they made progress, particularly in defense, infrastructure development, and digital fields, as illustrated by various Japanese initiatives—“Vientiane Vision 2.0,” “Initiative on Overseas Loan and Investment for ASEAN,” and “Data Free Flow with Trust.” As such, Japan and Southeast Asian states began to synthesize their respective visions toward the Indo-Pacific and to establish concrete cooperative mechanisms. However, diplomatic momentum was put on halt in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. While Japan, Southeast Asian states, and ASEAN made efforts to coordinate counter-measures, share information and best practices, and provide mutual assistance through teleconferences such as the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 in April 2020, each state faces different social and political situations, making it difficult to cooperate. As such, great uncertainty looms over Japan-Southeast Asia cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

The Emerging Indo-Pacific Era

Japan-Southeast Asia relations have been largely positive over the past year and this trend will likely continue in a foreseeable future. Relations have gained new political traction since early 2018 from Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept, which has bolstered Japan’s political, economic, and security engagement with Southeast Asia. There are three main positive trends: a synchronization of Indo-Pacific concepts, Japan’s enhanced security commitment to Southeast Asia, and constructive development of bilateral relations between Japan and Southeast Asian countries, particularly Vietnam. However, these trends have been focused on short-term goals and have not yet cemented a strategic relationship between Southeast Asia and Japan. Accomplishing that longer-term goal depends on whether Japan and Southeast Asian states can effectively manage three emerging challenges: reconciling differences with the US approach to the FOIP, expanding economic connectivity, and developing digital infrastructure.

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.