Japan's new government revealed a clear foreign policy trajectory soon after Shinzo Abe took office for a second term.
After Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso visited Myanmar, Fumio Kishida, the country's foreign minister, visited the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei, signaling Japan's interest in Southeast Asia. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a visit to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, where he attended a series of consultations on various issues with senior government officials. These high-ranking deputations from Japan's new government have attracted significant attention of the international community.
The behavior of Japan's new government is reminiscent of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration shoring up relations with ASEAN member states following his reelection victory in 2012.
Looking at current events, it becomes readily apparent that Japan's recent interest in Southeast Asia holds particular significance. From an economic perspective, negotiations on the Japan-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement are, for all intents and purposes, settled. But the agreement has not yet been implemented, angering ASEAN member state officials.
ASEAN initiated the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2011, and is similar in scope to the Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA) supported by Japan, but emphasizes ASEAN regional cooperation. Japan is being forced to support ASEAN's position, but the country still needs to take concrete actions to alleviate concerns over its participation in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership negotiations.
From a political perspective, Japan's assertion to promote so-called value-oriented diplomacy in Southeast Asia is rather misleading. Political systems in ASEAN countries are obvious. Their mutual cooperation in the political field often translates into policy consultations rather than political integration. In other words, a political map of ASEAN member states looks more like an abstract painting than a well-crafted portrait. Using the countries Shinzo Abe visited as case studies, only Thailand's constitutional monarchy resembled Japan's government, but the Southeast Asian country's political culture is not compatible with Japan. Vietnam is a socialist state, and resists Japanese values, and Indonesia is a democracy with strong Islamic characteristics. Japan does not have a receptive market to export its values.
From a security perspective, both Japan and SE Asia need one another. Southeast Asia has become an increasingly important component in Japanese foreign policy. Japan feels tremendous pressure from China over the Diaoyu Islands despite conditional U.S. support, and Japan hopes to shift China's attention away from the south. Shinzo was very strategic in selecting these three countries: Vietnam hedges against a dominant China in the South China Sea; Thailand may be persuaded to take issue on the South China Sea against China; and Indonesia has no stake in the issue.
As a whole, ASEAN countries are cautiously optimistic towards Japan's assertive regional diplomacy. After all, as the second largest economy in East Asia, Japan has a history of successful Southeast Asian relations. Visits by Japanese high-ranking officials have facilitated a large number of investments and projects conducive to nation-building of ASEAN countries. However, ASEAN member states stress the importance of building an ASEAN Political Security Community and a negotiations platform for dealing with powers outside the region; but many are beginning to pursue strong bilateral relations outside the ASEAN framework. Most notably, ASEAN member states are beginning to place Japan alongside the U.S. as a viable partner in political, economic and security fields. At present, economic partnerships are the primary source of bilateral communication.
ASEAN countries recognize that Japan is coordinating closely with the recent U.S. pivot to Asia. The so-called U.S. strategy of rebalancing its interests to the Asia-Pacific region is reflected primarily in the security field, rather than in trade. The U.S. has been unable to focus more attention on bilateral economic development between SE Asia and the U.S. due to domestic economic constraints. This constraint will allow Japan to supplant the U.S. as an economically, but Tokyo would have little chance of besting Washington if the U.S. and Japan were to compete head-to-head.
In this regard, China should remain to be cautious. On one hand, China should be confident, as Japanese efforts to bolster relations with ASEAN countries will not be able to contain China. Beijing and ASEAN member states have a variety of mature communication channels. Chinese and ASEAN policies are consistent and clear on many issues. Japan's efforts to strengthen economic ties between ASEAN countries is contributing to regional cooperation in East Asia, and is something that China fully supports.
On the other hand, China should remain vigilant. In recent years, Japan has tried to contain investment and trade relations between China and Southeast Asian countries. In Myanmar and in other countries, Japan is sparing no effort to fray the relationship between China and ASEAN countries, and China should be ready to prevent the consequences of such actions.
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