Simon Tay says while Japan’s re-energised interest in Southeast Asia is to be welcomed, Asean must keep the focus on the economy and resist being dragged into an anti-China coalition
Everyone's pivoting to Asia, even Asians. After the Barack Obama administration's rebalancing and Australia's white-paper pledge to give more emphasis to the region, here comes Japan. The recent visit to Southeast Asia by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscores this.
Rather than heading to Washington, his first overseas trip was to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. His foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, preceded him by visiting the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
As the first Asian nation to modernise, Japan has always been important to the region. In the second world war, conquest mixed with an anti-colonial awakening helped end empires and shape nationalism. In the decades since, Southeast Asia has welcomed Japan without the historical resentment seen in Korea and China.
But this new emphasis that the Abe government brings must be met with some reservation. It comes amid tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This has already spilled over into street riots, and had an impact on trade and financial co-operation between the region's two largest economies. Many suggest that reaching out to Asean is Japan's way of trying to align others to stand up to China.
The Philippines greeted the Abe initiative by welcoming Japan to rearm and that was reciprocated with a promise to provide multi-role vessels to enhance the Philippine coast guard. This was predictable, as the Benigno Aquino government was involved in a nervy stand-off with Chinese vessels over Scarborough Shoal last year.
But this cannot and should not be the response for others in the region.
The territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and four Asean member states - Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei as well as the Philippines - are disconnected and considerably different in terms of their legal merits from the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. Moreover, after Cambodia's partisan behaviour last year while serving as Asean chairman, the 10-nation group must focus on unity and neutrality.
Asean must not be dragged into an anti-China coalition with Japan. Instead, the group as a whole must more calmly manage the differences and rebuild trust with Beijing as a basis from which to negotiate an agreed code of conduct.
The nuances of Japanese rhetoric must therefore be watched. Take, for example, Abe's comments when visiting Jakarta. While agreeing that international law is important to the settlement of disputes, he characterised the region as an "open ocean" and called on Japan and Asean to "protect this with all our might".
Rather than might and military means, Japan's re-engagement with Asean should emphasise the economic dimension. In 2011, Japan's direct investment in Asean countries was about 1.55 trillion yen (about HK$155 billion at exchange rates then) - more than the 1.01 trillion yen invested in China.
Further, Asean has launched negotiations for a regional comprehensive economic partnership with its partners, and Japanese support for the undertaking would be most welcome.
Japan is also well placed to render assistance to Asean efforts to develop infrastructure and connectivity. Take Myanmar, for instance, which has opened its doors to foreign investment, in an effort to end isolation and Chinese dominance.
The Abe administration has already forgiven about US$6 billion of loans to Myanmar, and pledged its willingness to lend more. Such efforts can support the keen interest from Japanese companies to start up projects there, as well as the many, real needs in this strategically placed Asean member.
Asean would be well advised to monitor how Abe, noted for his nationalistic instincts, manages relations with China. If Tokyo recognises the deep Sino-Japanese interdependence, this will reassure and stabilise the region. One sign will be whether Tokyo will go ahead with negotiations on a northeast Asian trade pact.
Another key factor will be the Abe government's initiatives to restart the Japanese economy - using policies that are controversial in their own right.
The world's third-largest economy has been, and can again be, a major factor in the growth of the region. A more outward-looking and dynamic Japan can potentially open up a new phase of relations with Asean. But if the Abe administration is aggressively anti-Chinese, this will be a negative factor in regional relations, which have grown more difficult in recent years.
After the decades of no and slow growth, there has been a tendency of some to look past Japan, especially as leaders came and went in rapid succession. Now, however, what the Abe administration does must be watched by other Asians with both hope and concern.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and an associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. He is the author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America
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