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50 Golden Years of Japan-Asean Ties

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
Senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, and Columnist of Bangkok Post
May 10, 2024
It is imperative to begin by stressing that the five decades of Asean-Japan relations have three important features—mutual trust, equal partnership, and co-creation.

Japan has been the most trusted partner of Asean since both sides established diplomatic relations in 1973. In all the latest surveys by regional and international pollsters, their rankings were the same and have remained unchanged year after year.
Flags of ASEAN country members on a table
But to reach that level of trust, Japan must earn it. In the earlier years, this was tough due to the anti-Japan sentiment over its economic dominance in Southeast Asia and the residue of Japan’s past militarism.

In 1977, Prime Minister Fukuda pledged to the Asean leaders at their summit that Japan would never become a military power and it would establish ties of confidence and trust with Asean. He said Japan and Asean would maintain “heart-to-heart” relations, paving the way for closer cooperation and increased trust. Initially, the Asean leaders thought this was just pleasant diplomatic jargon, especially when Tokyo pledged to treat Asean as an equal partner.

It took years to articulate and execute the best way forward to overcome the existing hostile attitude. By the 1980s, Tokyo had adjusted its economic and developmental policies and the implementation of these to fit local environmental and communal requirements, demonstrating its sincerity in forging cooperation with the region.

After the first summit, Japan’s development assistance and technical cooperation steadily increased. At the same time, Japan’s private sector invested in the regional economy through major infrastructure including export-oriented industries. The relations symbolized both sides working and cooperating. After the end of the Indochina War, Japan took the initiative to bring the two rivals—Asean and Indochina—together.

Through various Asean-led programs, Japan helped to bridge the development and income gap between Asean and the new members comprising Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Japan was the biggest contributor among the group’s dialogue partners in bringing the two former enemies together. Within a decade, Asean’s expansion took in all former adversaries.

In the past seven years, Japan-Asean relations have become more considered and can be characterized as “head-to-head” due to their more strategic outlooks. Japan wants to ensure that the region's security environment remains conducive to stability and peaceful development and fertile for investment and trade. Japan has often reiterated the need to follow the international rules of law, freedom of navigation, and free trade.

In 2018, Japan came up with the new concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific to further promote the stability and prosperity of the international community. Of all the Indo-Pacific frameworks—14 at last count— Japan’s strategy has been the best received among the Asean countries. To respond to the ever-changing geopolitical landscape, Asean announced in 2019 the Asean Outlook for the Indo-Pacific. Both sides quickly agreed to synergize their two frameworks as they share similar principles and norms including openness, transparency, inclusiveness, and respect for international law. At the Tokyo summit in December to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Japan-Asean diplomatic relations, both sides reaffirmed their commitment to enhance their dialogue based on mutual trust, mutual respect, mutual benefit, win-win cooperation, and equal partnership.

In addition, Japan and Asean also face common challenges related to emerging cross-cutting global issues: energy, decarbonization, digital economy, health, aging, and wellbeing, among others. As such Japan is working closely together with the bloc, as co-creators, to realize inclusiveness while respecting diversity. In other words, both sides jointly identify challenges and solutions.

As the latest comprehensive strategic partner of Asean, Japan has already mapped out long-term strategies to support the post-2025 Asean vision that would cover the next two decades to 2045 to ensure continuity and consistency. These actions cover priorities such as maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economic cooperation.

For the next 50 years, Japan and Asean must continue and nurture the current momentum through increased dialogue and consultation at all levels and with all age groups, especially the young generation.
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