Of the four countries that newly-installed Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida chose to visit in his first trip abroad, three of them – the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei – were ASEAN nations. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on his own three-country tour of Southeast Asia last week, which covered Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. That was also Abe’s first trip abroad, though in his case it was more by circumstance than design since an effort to visit the United States first fell through (Abe will now visit the U.S. next month). Abe’s tour was also cut short by the ongoing hostage crisis in Algeria. Nonetheless, the question begs: why is Japan so aggressively courting Southeast Asia now?
Japan’s interest and role in Southeast Asia is nothing new and extends beyond current concerns about China. In fact, Japan has long been one of ASEAN’s oldest and most important dialogue partners. Relations began warming as early as 1977, when Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda decided upon his election to improve Tokyo’s image in the region which was marred by the Japanese occupation during World War II. Japan has since played a prominent role in Southeast Asia through its economic assistance, businesses, and culture, even as the entrance of other actors like China and Tokyo’s own economic woes have precluded a more assertive role in the region.
Yet it is also true that a confluence of contemporary events is making 2013 an important year for consolidating relations between Japan and Southeast Asia. Symbolically, it is the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan relations this year. Thus, one can expect many more exchanges and ceremony than usual among Tokyo and Southeast Asian countries over the next few months, much like ASEAN and India had in 2012 when they celebrated their 20th anniversary.
More importantly, the list of common interests between Japan and Southeast Asia is arguably longer now than ever before. Economically, Japan is seeking new markets amid its fourth recession since 2000 and souring relations with China, while ASEAN is looking for partners to help it forge a cohesive ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2015 through funding infrastructure projects. For instance, during Abe’s recent visit to Bangkok, Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra reiterated her country’s desire for Japanese involvement in a Dawei port project it is working on with Myanmar, an initiative which Tokyo has expressed interest in.
In the security sphere, both Japan and many Southeast Asian states currently have territorial disputes with China, in addition to a diverse range of common vital security interests ranging from natural disasters to drugs and terrorism. For example, Japan’s provision of 10 patrol boats to strengthen the Philippine coast guard by 2014 was a major discussion point during Kishida’s meeting with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario. The Japan-Philippine relationship is a particularly important one as Tokyo is one of Manila’s only two strategic partners and both are U.S. allies. Symbolism also matters here in that Manila was where Fukuda issued his famous speech in August 1977 on ASEAN-Japan relations, which later became known as the Fukuda Doctrine.
A number of other areas could see development in ASEAN-Japan relations in 2013. Energy security will likely be emphasized since it is vital to realizing the ASEAN Economic Community and is a priority for Brunei who is chairing ASEAN this year. Progress could also be made on cyber security, as both sides are particularly vulnerable to attacks (some from China) and have reportedly begun discussions on setting up a cyberdefense network.
The exact path to strengthening relations between Japan and Southeast Asia will be forged by both sides in the coming months. But the need for cooperation, not just on China but across a range of fields, is clear. Southeast Asia watchers should add ASEAN-Japan relations to their list of things to keep an eye on for the rest of 2013.