South East Asia is an area of utmost importance for Japan’s economic, political and security interests, amounting to “a core strategic interest” for Tokyo.
Major economic partners, South East Asian countries are also regarded as key partners in promoting a stable, prosperous and rules-based regional order, the main objective of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) policy. ASEAN countries are indeed at the forefront of the Sino-US competition, and their ability to remain united and resilient in front of pressures will be crucial to determine the future regional balance of power.
Therefore, Tokyo has been stepping up a smart strategic engagement to South East Asia while mitigating China’s growing influence in the region through the promotion of alternative connectivity initiatives and new security engagements.
Economically, in response to Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Japan has been boosting its already good record of infrastructure investments. The “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” in 2015, and its expanded version in 2016, provide respectively US$110 billion and US$200 billion to connectivity projects, mainly in South East Asia. Data actually shows that Japan is still ahead of China in terms of infrastructure investment in the region. At the difference of Beijing that prioritizes North-South routes, Tokyo is promoting East-West connectivity schemes, thus helping to integrate the whole region.
This proactive strategy has also been designed to improve the business conditions for Japanese companies. More than 12,000 of them operate in the region, and Japan is ASEAN’s first source of direct investments. As Japanese firms move from a “China+1” to a “Thailand+1” strategy, diversifying their production bases, they also help forming new supply chains, supported by new infrastructures.
Strategically, Japan has been soft-balancing China by strengthening the resiliency of South-East Asian countries through maritime capacity-building activities and institutionalized strategic dialogues. Through a strategic use of its development assistance, Japan has been playing an important role in training and equipping the coastguards units of Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, thus enabling these countries to better monitor their maritime domain and mitigate power asymmetry in the South China Sea. The capacity building assistance program set up in 2012 by the Ministry of Defense and prioritizing South-East Asian partners is also focusing on the appropriation and implementation of maritime law. Under new legal provisions, Tokyo was also able to supply five second-hand TC-90 patrol aircraft to the Philippines, which used them to monitor Scarborough Shoal, a place of intense friction with China.
Formerly reluctant to make a visible commitment to any political or military initiative in the region, Tokyo now assumes a role of security provider in South East Asia. New military attachés to the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have been appointed and Tokyo has been upgrading its naval dispatches in the region to foster its security partnerships and demonstrate its attachment to the freedom of navigation. In 2017, the de facto aircraft carrier Izumo, the largest ship of the Japanese fleet, made port calls in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and Subic Bay in the Philippines, and sailed to Singapore, embarking ten South-East Asian military officers on a four-day tour, before participating in Malabar exercises with India and the United States. In 2018, her twin, JS Kaga was dispatched in the South China Sea and conducted exercises with Malaysia and Indonesia.
As a result of these efforts, Japan is now seen as legitimate and benign strategic player in the region. For a long time, bitter collective memories of Japan’s aggressive past prevented it from developing its politico-military role in South East Asia. This is no longer the case. A recent survey showed that Japan is the most trusted country by opinion leaders in ASEAN. Better still, Japan is gradually becoming a sought-after security partner: Vietnam and Malaysia have shown interest in acquiring second-hand P3-C maritime patrol aircraft.
This said, Tokyo is also careful to reassure ASEAN and reaffirm its attachment to the organization’s centrality and strategic autonomy. Japan is thus developing its defense cooperation with ASEAN as a whole, through its Vientiane Vision, and is keeping up its multilateral security cooperation through the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). One example is the establishment of the ASEAN-Japan Cybersecurity Capacity Building Centre in Bangkok last year.
Also, Japan has softened its rhetoric on its Indo-Pacific strategy after concerns from ASEAN members that FOIP might be a containment policy vis à vis China. The “strategy” has been transformed into a “vision” that sounds milder and the emphasis is now put on ASEAN centrality. Similarly, the importance of sharing democratic values is now downplayed to accommodate the political diversity of ASEAN countries and the focus is put rather on the respect of rule of law at the international level than on the domestic front.
The ties between South East Asia and Japan are thus strong and multifaceted. Economic integration and security cooperation are growing. The two players now see each-others as important partners for the shaping of the future regional order and work together on strategic governance issues, including digital economy. All this point to a long-term, strategic relationship between Japan and South-East Asian countries.