Abe Steps into Southeast Asia’s Spotlight: Japan Reengages ASEAN

By Will Colson & Kate Rustici

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Southeast Asia has renewed Japan's engagement with ASEAN. Source: Wikimedia author, 多摩に暇人, used under a creative commons license.

Japan’s new prime minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Southeast Asia from January 16-18 for his first overseas trip with stops in Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. Abe initially hoped to make the United States his first visit abroad, but Southeast Asia is a notable second choice.

Though Abe’s trip was unfortunately cut short, he released a five point foreign policy vision for working with ASEAN on January 18. He expressly called for rule of law and freedom of navigation on the seas, enhanced economic networks and exchanges, and expansion of democracy and human rights.

These principles speak to Japan’s desire to advance its profile both economically and politically and enhance its long history of engagement. Much of Southeast Asia is experiencing rapid economic growth, and Japanese investors are increasingly optimistic about the prospects there, especially given Japan’s lagging domestic economy. Many Southeast Asian countries welcome this renewed Japanese engagement as they seek to diversify their business, political, and security partnerships in the face of a rising China.

That being said, Abe’s foreign policy vision could present challenges for Japanese engagement in Southeast Asia. Only half of the ASEAN countries are democracies and all struggle with human rights to some extent. Abe’s call for enshrining these values could alienate potential economic partners. Additionally, calls to work directly with ASEAN on maritime issues could be seen by China as aggressive posturing.

Abe’s visit to Southeast Asia came at a critical point for his second administration. He was criticized during his 2006-2007 term as Prime Minister for not focusing on economic issues. Now he must demonstrate his acumen in the lead-up to a parliamentary election this summer. A key component of his strategy appears to be economic diplomacy and Japan has many incentives to engage Southeast Asia.

A December poll published in the Nikkei Shimbun found that 85 percent of Japanese companies named Southeast Asia a priority destination for investment, while only 40 percent said the same of China. This reflects concerns over increased tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, such as the Senkaku islands dispute.

Meanwhile, Japanese investment in Southeast Asia has grown nearly twice as fast as in China. Southeast Asia represents an emerging production corridor and a major potential market where Japan enjoys great popularity. However, political instability in recent years has complicated Japan’s efforts to sustain a high profile in the region, despite being a long standing supporter of ASEAN as a regional forum.

Visits to the region by Abe government ministers earlier this month show a substantive effort to intensify engagement. Finance Minister Taro Aso traveled to Myanmar on January 2 and met with President Thein Sein the following day to discuss Japan’s continuing assistance in debt relief. Japan hopes to gain a foothold in Myanmar’s rapidly opening markets, while Myanmar is seeking to diversify its economic partners and move away from an overreliance on China.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida traveled to Singapore, Brunei, Australia, and the Philippines last week. While in Manila, he vowed to bolster security ties, including by providing 10 coastguard vessels to the Philippines over the next eighteen months.

These trips sent a strong and well received signal that Japan is refocusing its engagement in Southeast Asia to encompass more than just business interests. The Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei all face territorial disputes with China and share a desire to counter Chinese assertiveness without jeopardizing economic ties that play a central role in their economies.  Abe’s trip is an attempt to reaffirm Japan’s ties with Southeast Asian countries and balance China’s growing presence in the region.

Both Japan and Southeast Asia have strong incentives to maintain a positive economic relationship with China while diversifying their options and interests. Abe’s visit represents a unique opportunity to enhance regional partnerships and take a leading role in a rapidly changing region. Many Southeast Asian countries have vocalized a desire for stronger regional players in the face of a rising China and are happy to see Japan step into that role.

In light of historical grievances, it is remarkable to see Southeast Asia welcoming Japan as a political player and not just an economic one. Abe’s visit could mark the beginning of a new chapter in the regional dynamics of the Asia-Pacific.

Mr. William Colson is a Research Assistant with the Japan Chair at CSIS. Ms. Kathleen Rustici is a Research Associate with the CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.

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