Apr 1, 2013

Japan - Japan’s future lies in ASEAN, envoy says

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The year 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan relations, which began in 1973 with the establishment of the ASEAN-Japan forum on synthetic rubber.

Over the years, they have forged close cooperation on peace, stability, development and prosperity. They have also established a close business partnership, with total bilateral trade amounting to US$248 billion.

At present, Japan is emphasizing connectivity enhancement, disaster management and human-to-human relations as the major pillars of its cooperation with ASEAN. Japanese Ambassador for ASEAN Kimihiro Ishikane talks to The Jakarta Post’s Yohanna Ririhena on these issues. 

Question: Japan has a huge presence in every nation in Southeast Asia. Why is it important for Japan to assign another ASEAN envoy?

Answer: The answer to that question is the answer to the question of why ASEAN is building a community. I think because ASEAN wishes to have something more than just 10 individual countries. With community, ASEAN is pursuing added value, which comes from networking or connectivity. By networking, the 10 countries will be stronger than if they were on their own. A stronger ASEAN is, of course, in Japan’s interests, as a market and production center.

The many Japanese companies operating across the region constitute a kind of supply chain. That means connecting ASEAN to the interests of Japanese companies as well. In connectivity and networking, we would like to work with ASEAN because our future lies in this region.

When did Japan start to think that ASEAN was really important?

This region has always been very important for Japan as a market and investment destination. Strategically, our sea lane passes through it. More than 85 percent of our crude oil from the Middle East travels through this region. So, ASEAN stability is extremely important.

ASEAN is economically very vibrant. The growing market is here, with more than 600 million, mostly young, people.

The year 2013 marks 40 years of ASEAN-Japan relations. What has been achieved so far? 

After 40 years of cooperation, we have achieved a lot. Japan and ASEAN are so closely connected in terms of economy and investment. For Japan, ASEAN  is its number-two trading partner after China. For ASEAN, Japan is its number-two trading partner after China and its top individual country investor. According to a survey, eight ASEAN countries appear on a top-20 list of countries that will attract Japanese investment within two to three years.

In terms of human relations, we have a number of exchange programs, such as Jenesys, which was launched in 2010. Since then, 13,000 ASEAN youths visited Japan, and another 10,000 will arrive during phase two, which began in 2012.

Connectivity enhancement, disaster management and human-to-human relations are the major pillars upon which Japan will concentrate its energy in the region.

How does Japan contribute to the process of community?

First, Japan invests most of its wisdom, energy and resources to connectivity. We set up a task force in Tokyo comprising private firms and government agencies to talk about what we could do. Since 2011, we have been gradually implementing concrete projects to enhance connectivity. We are entering a more difficult stage in institutional connectivity, however.

Second, is disaster management. Like Japan, the ASEAN region is also prone to natural disasters. Disaster management touches on humanitarian action, community building and economic aspects. This supply chain was disrupted when the tsunami hit Japan and floods hit Thailand. We need to make this supply chain resilient. When it is disrupted, we need to recover quickly.

For that purpose, we have been cooperating closely with the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Center).

How much does Japan spend on connectivity projects?

I cannot tell you how much money will come from the government because there are many tools of cooperation.  Of course, the traditional cooperation tool comes from Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).

When it comes to major infrastructure and construction projects, we will use yen loans. However, loans will not be sufficient to meet the huge demands in this region. Some say physical infrastructure will require $10 trillion over 10 years. ODA, therefore, will not be enough; we need to bring in private money. When we announced major flagship connectivity projects in 2011, the overall amount needed for construction was ¥2 trillion.

We need to work with ASEAN countries to set up a legal system and financial mechanism to ensure this. That is why we need public-private partnership (PPP) agreements.

China has become a vital player in the region and has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. How will Japan balance China’s assertiveness in the ASEAN region?

China has become very big. But we all agree that China also offers huge opportunities and challenges as a market and production center. We need to interact so that we can really maximize cooperation for our mutual benefits.

On the other hand, it is true that there are some uncertainty and ambiguity about how China plans to behave in the region. This leads to some concern, but we need to address this issue mainly through engagement. We have seen many things taking shape with ASEAN as a center: I think ASEAN offers us the chance to work together, along with China, to build a better model from which we can all benefit.

Looking at recent tensions over the East China Sea, does Japan regard ASEAN as more important than ever?

We are determined to manage the tensions, not to raise them. Some businesspeople have witnessed very difficult situations in carrying out their business in China when tensions arise. As a market, China remains significant because of its population, while as a production center, it is also important. However, ASEAN is becoming increasingly important.

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