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A Southeast Asian Perspective on Japan’s Role in the Region

By Joseph Chinyong Liow
Nanyang Technological University
April 10, 2023
For the states of Southeast Asia, their external security and economic environment is changing rapidly, and in profound and disconcerting ways. The foremost concern is the sharp downturn in Sino-US relations that is gathering pace and threatens to impair regional growth and prosperity. In addition to that, a litany of security issues including unresolved territorial claims, such as the South China Sea dispute, and complicated challenges with deep historical baggage, such as the tension in the Taiwan Straits, threatens to further undermine regional peace. Against this backdrop of growing strategic uncertainty and acute deterioration in Sino-US relations, Southeast Asian states have looked to other major powers to play a more active and constructive role to stabilize regional affairs. For them, there are at least three reasons why Japan is well placed to play this role.

First, Japan already has an established presence and track record of engagement in the region. In August 1977, then Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda articulated his ‘Fukuda doctrine’, which set out the following principles that guided Japanese engagement with Southeast Asia: (1) Japan is committed to peace, and rejects the role of a military power; (2) Japan will do its best to consolidate the relationship of mutual confidence and trust based on ‘heart-to-heart’ understanding with the nations of Southeast Asia; and (3) Japan will cooperate positively with ASEAN while aiming to foster a relationship based on mutual understanding with the countries of Indochina and will thus contribute to the building of peace and prosperity throughout Southeast Asia.

The Fukuda doctrine set the stage for relations with Southeast Asia to develop in the subsequent decades. Guided by the doctrine, Japan mobilized its economic, diplomatic, financial, and infrastructure resources to support the region. Japanese FDI, development aid, and trade in the decades after the Fukuda doctrine provided much-needed economic infrastructure to many states in Southeast Asia and catalyzed regional growth, first in the maritime states and later, the mainland counterparts. Of note too is the fact that when it was articulated, the Fukuda doctrine also carried great strategic significance. The US withdrawal from Vietnam earlier in 1973 had marked a major turning point for Southeast Asia. For the anti-communist states in the region (namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore), the decline in US interest and commitment rendered them vulnerable to the influence of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, both of which were increasing their presence in the region. Given this geopolitical uncertainty, Japan provided an important and welcome strategic alternative. Much in the same vein, against the backdrop of the present downturn in Sino-US relations and the geopolitical flux that has resulted, Japan once again finds itself assuming the crucial role as a strategic alternative for a Southeast Asia.

Second, the level of trust that Southeast Asia has for Japan today is very high. As but one example, the 2023 State of Southeast Asia Survey recently released by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore identified Japan as the most trusted major power in the region. The two main reasons cited for this were that that Japan is a “responsible stakeholder that respects and champions international law” and “Japan has vast economic resources and the political will to provide global leadership.” In fact, Japan has consistently been Southeast Asia’s strategic partner of choice aside from the US, and the most trusted power for the region as well, for the past few years. This has been borne out by previous iterations of this survey. As a further manifestation of this trust, regional leaders have also explicitly called on Japan to assume a larger role in the region. Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, expressed the following view on the occasion of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Singapore in June 2022: “Singapore looks forward to Japan playing a larger role in the region, contributing not only to the economic vitality of the Asia Pacific, but also to the peace and stability of the region. With the passing of the years and generations, and in the new strategic environment, Japan should consider how best it can come to terms with the past and put to rest long outstanding historical issues. This will enable Japan to play a greater role in regional security cooperation, and to participate fully in building and upholding an open and inclusive regional architecture.”

Third, there much that is shared in the geopolitical and geoeconomic outlooks of Japan and Southeast Asian states. Both parties are strong advocates of free trade and open regionalism. Under the late former prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan was credited with rescuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership following the withdrawal of the US, transforming it into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is also a major member in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes China. When the concept of the Indo-Pacific surfaced in regional discussions in 2016, Southeast Asian states, concerned for the challenge that it might pose to ASEAN Centrality, kept it at a safe remove. In response, Tokyo moved swiftly to reassure Southeast Asia that its pursuit of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific would not undermine ASEAN Centrality, which Japan was only too ready to reaffirm. In the meantime, Japan has also demonstrated a willingness to continue fostering economic and diplomatic links with China, including in the provision of quality infrastructure to states in the region. Both Japan and Southeast Asia are also firmly committed to upholding a rules-based international order.

It used to be that because of the historical experience from the Second World War, Southeast Asia was apprehensive about Japan playing a more active role in the region especially in the security domain. This does not appear to be the case anymore. Rather, given that the geopolitical challenges and risks confronting Southeast Asia today and that are likely to intensify in the coming years, and for the reasons cited above, the region is looking to Japan to play an increasingly important role as a regional leader.
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