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Golden Jubilee of the ASEAN-Japan Partnership: The Way Forward?

By Lam Peng Er
Principal Research Fellow, East Asian institute, National University of Singapore
May 10, 2024
Arguably, a predictable, peaceful, and prosperous East Asia (both Northeast and Southeast Asia) is anchored in a vibrant, future-oriented ASEAN-Japan partnership. Simply put, there cannot be a genuine East Asian community if contemporary relations between Japan and the ASEAN member states are bad. To be sure, a brilliant ASEAN-Japan partnership is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a peaceful and prosperous East Asia. A sanguine scenario necessitates the Chinese superpower and nuclearizing North Korea to abide by international law and informal norms (such as the consensual ASEAN Way of multilateralism) in East Asia with no hostile intent towards their neighbours. The realist perspective is that deterrence, systems of alliances and the balance of power are unavoidable to maintain the peace in East Asia.

This essay comprises two parts. The first section examines the Golden Jubilee of the ASEAN-Japan Partnership and the way forward for this cordial relationship. The second section is a short reflection on international law in regional governance.
Flags of ASEAN country members

50th Anniversary of ASEAN-Japan Partnership

The conventional view is that the genesis of this partnership was their deal making at the Synthetic Rubber Forum in 1973. To be sure, this was a narrow economic issue pertinent to only a few natural rubber-producing ASEAN countries then. Though Japan was an economic superpower and a producer of synthetic rubber, it adopted a consultative and conciliatory approach towards the weaker ASEAN states and heeded their economic interests to export natural rubber. However, the 1973 Synthetic Rubber Forum has now been forgotten by most people.

My interpretation is that the genuine Golden Jubilee of the Japan-ASEAN Relations should be dated back to the 1977 Fukuda Doctrine. This doctrine remains the blueprint of postwar, democratic Japan’s contemporary relations with Southeast Asia. It is simply amazing for any foreign policy doctrine to last for almost half a century. My prognosis is that the Fukuda Doctrine will last long after its Golden Jubilee in 2027. Its durability is, in part, due to its resonance with the ten ASEAN member states. Simply put, the Fukuda Doctrine would not have lasted if the ASEAN member states have rejected it. On the contrary, Southeast Asia has embraced the Fukuda Doctrine. Ironically, the Fukuda Doctrine is remembered more fondly in Southeast Asia than in Japan.

Fukuda Doctrine: Past, present, and future

What are the three tenets of the Fukuda Doctrine articulated by then Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo in 1977? They are:

First, post-war Japan will not act as a military power in Southeast Asia i.e. it will never again become a militaristic power towards Southeast Asia like imperial Japan which invaded, occupied, and brutalized Southeast Asia during World War II.

Second, Japan will adopt a “heart-to-heart” relationship with the ASEAN member states.

Third, Japan will support ASEAN as a regional organization based on an equal partnership.

"Since 1977, Japan has been a good neighbour to Southeast Asia in multiple domains:
• It is an important investment and trade partner with this region.

• Japan provided generous ODA (Official Development Assistance) to Southeast Asia.

• Japan assisted some ASEAN countries reeling from the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis.

• Tokyo engaged in peacebuilding in Cambodia, East Timor, Aceh (Sumatra, Indonesia), Mindanao (Southern Philippines) and Myanmar.

• Since 2023, Tokyo has provided OSA (Official Security Assistance) to some ASEAN countries.

• Japan is also a staunch supporter of the ASEAN-centric multilateralism in East Asia such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Plus Three (APT), East Asian Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM)."

"Rather than resting on their laurels on how wonderful the Japan-ASEAN Partnership has been, how can their cooperative relationship move forward in the next few decades? I’ve a few suggestions.

• First, Japan and ASEAN should in principle affirm and uphold international law, the freedom of navigation and no use of force in territorial disputes.

• Second, Japan should support the ASEAN member states to deal with the civil-war-like conundrum in Myanmar.

• Third, Japan should cooperate with ASEAN to assist East Timor’s accession to become the 11th member state of ASEAN. This includes the training of East Timor officials to participate in the manifold meetings of ASEAN, and other developmental assistance.

• Beyond functional cooperation such as digital trade pacts with the ASEAN member states, Japan and Southeast Asia should also cooperate to prevent the extinction of flora and fauna, pollution of the oceans and climate change regionally and globally."

In summary, if Japan were to continue supporting ASEAN as a regional organization for East Asian multilateralism in the 21st century, that will be consonant to the supportive and peaceful intent of the Fukuda Doctrine towards Southeast Asia. Arguably, the good relationship between Japan and Southeast Asia is based on mutual economic and diplomatic interests (“wallet-to-wallet” and “head-to-head”) and the happy habit of a sentimental “heart-to-heart” relationship and not structured by any formal, security alliances or binding “hard” international law.

Rule of international law in East Asia

International order is based on a combination of formal international law, informal norms (based on shared values, regional community and global society), and the harsh reality of the balance of power. Japan and the ASEAN states are members of the United Nations and in principle subscribe to international law and global norms of respecting national sovereignty and non-coercive measures in territorial disputes. To be sure, ASEAN member states comprise small and middle powers which benefit most from international law and the respect of national sovereignty. They do not really need any external great powers to lecture them that international law is important and good for them.

The problem is that superpowers often resort to international law on a selective basis. Some superpowers would ignore international law when it is inconvenient to them. Indeed, they sometimes act unilaterally without being “hamstrung” by international law. At issue is not whether states in the international system subscribe to international law in principle. All states would claim that they abide by international law. The problem is when an international crisis erupts, states driven by their national interests would sometimes take different interpretations of international law or choose to ignore international law such as breaking the fundamental principle of sovereignty when Russia recently invaded Ukraine.

Take for example, the ASEAN states. All ASEAN states except Vietnam and Laos voted to support the United Nations General assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calling for Russian forces to withdraw. (Vietnam and Laos abstained). The military junta in Myanmar supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Notwithstanding that ASEAN member states do not necessarily act in unison in international affairs such as over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or China’s excessive 9-dash line claims in the disputed South China Sea, the ASEAN member states, and Japan should continue to steadfastly uphold international law for regional order. The stark alternative is a Hobbesian law of the jungle in East Asia and the world.


The relations between postwar Japan and Southeast Asia are no longer governed by realist power politics but a sense of community based on the idealistic heart-to-heart relationship. Indeed, the ASEAN-Japan Partnership is a time-tested friendship. We should look forward to the Golden Jubilee of the Fukuda Doctrine in 2027 and explore how Japan and ASEAN can deepen and broaden their comprehensive friendship and cooperation and add value to the rest of the world.

The problem in Northeast Asia is that there is no equivalent of a Fukuda Doctrine (a genuine heart-to-heart relationship) between Japan and China, and between Japan and the Korean peninsula. The heart of the problem in Northeast Asia is the problem of the heart. This is due to historical and territorial disputes and domestic politics which spill over to international relations. Their bilateral relations cannot be adequately addressed by international law or nuclear deterrence. Rather, Northeast Asia should learn from the cordial Japan-ASEAN relations to adopt the heart-to-heart relationship of the Fukuda Doctrine for historical reconciliation, friendship, peace and prosperity.
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