CENTRE ON ASEAN: It should be mutually beneficial
JAPAN is back! That was the message Shinzo Abe was supposed to underscore when he chose Southeast Asia as his first official overseas foray on his second appointment as Japanese premier.
When Abe was premier in 2006, Beijing was the first foreign capital he called on. China was the pragmatic and logical choice as Abe sought to normalise ties between the two Asian giants following the testy years of the Koizumi Administration (2001-2006).
Six years later, China, and not Southeast Asia in spite of the official rhetoric, remains an important centrepiece for Japanese diplomacy but for different reasons.
The Kyodo News Agency all but laid out the implicit mission for Abe's Southeast Asian tour: "Abe cements ties with Southeast Asia to counter China."
In his first administration, Abe sought to rebuild bridges with China and when he officially took office last December, the mood was decidedly more pessimistic and grave. With the riots and attacks against Japanese business interests in China and the tense situation surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, Abe finds himself facing down an implacable and petulant China.
The preoccupation with China, unfortunately, detracts from the major story of the Southeast Asian visit, which was the "announcement" of the Abe Doctrine. In a speech which was scheduled to be delivered in Jakarta but was cancelled as Abe cut short his Indonesian visit to return to Tokyo in the wake of the Algerian hostage crisis, Abe outlined five principles for Japan's engagement with the region:
- The protection of freedom of thought, expression, and speech;
- Ensuring that the seas are governed by laws and rules, not might;
- The pursuit of free, open and interconnected economies;
- The promotion of intercultural ties among the peoples of Japan and the region; and
- The promotion of exchanges among the younger generation.
Japanese diplomacy is not known for high-profile policy speeches, and the last major Asian policy speech dates back to 1977 when Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda enunciated the famous Fukuda Doctrine, which pledged that Japan shall not become a military power, and would undertake "heart-to-heart relations with Asean and cooperate with Asean on managing and resolving issues pertaining to Indo-China.
The newly christened Abe Doctrine reintroduces a "values-based" approach Abe started in his first term of office. While Japan has always emphasised liberal and democratic norms and values, and the rule of law, its record of actively promoting them is sketchy at best.
Traditionally, Japan has been adept and more comfortable with seikei bunri, a prescription which calls for the separation of politics and economics. Will Japan now walk the talk in putting its substantive economic weight behind efforts to promote openness, liberty and good governance?
The Asashi Shimbun is sceptical and pointed out the irony of Vietnam as Abe's first stop in his three-country tour.
In contrast to the Fukuda Doctrine which had the effect of putting Japan's relations with Southeast Asia on a productive and mutually beneficial foundation, Abe's five principles, especially the first, may not be well-received and could also damage Japanese diplomacy.
In prioritising the promotion of liberal and democratic norms in its relations with Southeast Asia, Japan would inadvertently have to distinguish countries that are "progressive" and those that are less so. How would highlighting, for example, Thailand's forceful management of demonstrators be received in Bangkok?
Abe would do well to remember that Japan is one of the most trusted major powers in the region because it had heretofore respected and understood that the 10 Asean nations have different political trajectories and paths. While working with Asean to build a strong and stable socio-economic foundation, Japan had steered away from any missionary zeal of imposing values on the region.
The best way for Japan to assist Asean in liberal norm creation and consolidation is to do it in a quiet, gradual and collaborative manner.
If the intent of the Abe Doctrine was to rally the Asean states to face up to an increasingly assertive China, Tokyo is setting itself up to be disappointed. To be sure, Asean is unsettled and concerned with China's erratic -- and often provocative -- behaviour in the last few years.
As Asean is trying to work out its issues with China, Asean would want to shy away from implicit balancing overtures from Japan or other major powers.
In supporting the call for rule-based management of the global commons which includes the maritime domain, Asean should be alert to attempts to link the South China Sea (SCS) disputes with the situation in the East China Sea (ECS).
The dynamics of the SCS and ECS are different, and as much as Asean values its friendship and deep partnership with Japan, the former should stay above the long-standing strained and often acrimonious Sino-Japanese relations.
The Abe Doctrine is different from the Fukuda Doctrine in two significant measures. Firstly, the Fukuda Doctrine was a pronouncement to communicate with Asean on Asean-Japan relations, but the Abe Doctrine appears to be an opportunity to talk to Asean about China.
Secondly, the Fukuda Doctrine sets the tone for mutually beneficial relations between Asean and Japan, while the Abe Doctrine leans towards serving Japan's geo-strategic interests.
If there were a response to the Abe Doctrine, it would be to call upon our friends in Tokyo to set its Asian policy centred on Asean and not use the Asean-Japan bilateral relations as a means to "other ends."
Dr Tang Siew Mun
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