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Japan-ASEAN Cooperation as Security Partners

By Kitti Prasirtsuk
Professor of International Relations at Thammasat University, Thailand
May 10, 2024
How do you perceive the future trajectory of Japan-ASEAN relations, particularly in light of ongoing economic cooperation through agreements like the ASEAN-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (AJCEP)? 
ASEAN-Japan economic relations peaked in the 2000s with the signing of the ASEAN-Japan Comprehensive Economy Partnership and bilateral agreements with several ASEAN nations. However, since the late 2010s, Japan's investment in the region has generally declined, while witnessing a shift of investment flows toward Vietnam and Indonesia more, especially after the US-China trade war.

While Vietnam and Indonesia have seen increased investment, countries like Malaysia and Thailand have received less. This shift is accompanied by changes in the nature of investments, leaning towards service industries like restaurants and retail which tend to be in smaller amounts, compared to manufacturing industries.

Despite these changes, Japan remains a significant economic partner for ASEAN, adapting to evolving circumstances in each country. For instance, rising labor costs in Thailand are leading to a transition away from manufacturing towards service-based industries, reflecting the dynamic nature of Japan-ASEAN economic cooperation.

Flag of ASEAN

How do you envision the "Partnership to Co-create a Future with the Next Generation" exchange program contributing to the long-term growth and prosperity of the Japan-ASEAN partnership?
In the context of collaboration between Japan and ASEAN countries, the idea of co-creation extends beyond traditional boundaries. For instance, the fusion of cuisines, such as incorporating Thai, Malaysian, or Indonesian elements into Japanese dishes, opens up possibilities for export to global markets, rather than confining them to the ASEAN region. This culinary fusion exemplifies the potential for joint ventures that transcend geographical limitations.

Moreover, Japan's willingness to engage in co-design, co-development, and research partnerships across various industries, including automotive manufacturing, illustrates a broader commitment to collaborative innovation. For instance, Toyota and Honda set up R&D centers in Thailand to develop and design some models of small passenger cars and pickup trucks, showcasing the success of such collaborative efforts. This approach extends beyond manufacturing to the service industry as well, with Japan demonstrating openness to adapting products to suit local tastes and preferences. The success of these endeavors in ASEAN can serve as a blueprint for expansion into other regions such as South Asia and the Middle East.

However, while the focus on the next generation is crucial, it's essential to also address the needs of aging populations in ASEAN countries and Japan. As societies age, considerations for the older generation become increasingly important. Thus, co-creation efforts must also encompass solutions for aging societies, with countries like Thailand and Singapore leading the way in this regard. This inclusive approach to co-creation ensures sustainable collaboration and mutual benefit across generations and demographic shifts.

How can Japan and ASEAN further strengthen their partnership to address emerging security challenges in the region?
Japan has long been a crucial security partner for ASEAN, dating back to the 1990s. Its support for initiatives such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Plus Three, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) underscores its commitment to the region's stability. Japan also contributed to peacekeeping operations (PKO) in Cambodia and Timor Leste, as well as leading an initiative to combat piracy in the region. In the face of both traditional and non-traditional security challenges, ASEAN countries increasingly seek collaboration with Japan, particularly in areas like human security, disaster relief, piracy, and cybersecurity.

Japan's expertise in cybersecurity is especially valued in ASEAN, with countries placing a high level of trust in Japan's capabilities. Maritime security presents another area of collaboration, with Japan's advanced surveillance technology offering significant benefits in terms of maritime domain awareness and combating issues like piracy, trafficking, and smuggling.

Recognizing the diverse security needs within ASEAN, Japan must adopt a tailored approach. While countries like the Philippines may prioritize traditional security concerns due to challenges in the South China Sea, others may focus more on issues like infrastructure development and climate change resilience.

Overall, Japan's multifaceted support for ASEAN's security encompasses both traditional and non-traditional dimensions, reflecting a spectrum of challenges and priorities across the region. As ASEAN continues to evolve, Japan's adaptive approach will be crucial in addressing the dynamic security landscape and fostering regional stability and prosperity.

From your perspective, what challenges do you foresee Japan and ASEAN encountering in collaborating on regional stability and security and how can Japan and ASEAN work together to address them effectively?
One significant challenge lies in maintaining a balance between the competing interests of the two major powers, the United States and China. All ASEAN countries seek to navigate this balance carefully, with Japan historically aligned closely with the U.S. This necessitates Japan's security cooperation with ASEAN to be conducted with tact and subtlety, avoiding overt actions that may disrupt the delicate equilibrium vis-a-vis China.

Therefore, Japan must pursue a more independent role in the region, not merely following the lead of the United States, but crafting its own security approach tailored to the complexities of Southeast Asia. While traditional security concerns remain paramount, non-traditional security threats also loom large, further emphasizing Japan's role as a crucial partner in addressing regional challenges.

In this context, Japan's unique position as a major power offers an opportunity for a different kind of engagement with ASEAN—one that prioritizes mutual cooperation and respects ASEAN's autonomy. Thus, Japan's approach to security cooperation in the region should reflect a nuanced understanding of ASEAN's dynamics and priorities, further solidifying its role as a trusted and reliable partner in Southeast Asia.

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