Japan’s Pivot Should Be Sustained: View from Southeast Asia

By Phuong Nguyen

Abe-san arrives at APEC 2013 in Bali, Indonesia. Source: APEC 2013's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Prime Minister Abe arrives at APEC 2013 in Bali, Indonesia on October 6, 2013. Source: APEC 2013’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Cambodia and Laos in November, he will become the first Japanese prime minister to tour all 10 ASEAN member countries in his first year in office. Japan has always been an important economic player and enjoys positive public sentiment in most Southeast Asian countries, but its policy toward Southeast Asia never went beyond the 1977 Fukuda doctrine, in which Japan stressed the building of mutual trust with Southeast Asia and pledged to forever renounce military power but it has never risen to a regional leadership role. Now, with its policy of rebalancing to Southeast Asia, the Abe government looks determined to revamp the country’s geopolitical identity in Asia.

Governments in Southeast Asia find themselves in sync with the rationale behind Japan’s rebalance. In the context of Washington’s rebalance, key U.S. allies in Asia will need to step up efforts to safeguard common security interests in the region. For Japan, this means taking on greater responsibility for maritime security and freedom of navigation in the East and South China seas.

For Southeast Asian countries, Japan’s rebalance has thus far translated into opportunities to boost emergency preparedness and self-defense capabilities. In 2012, Japan for the first time gave $2 million of limited military aid for disaster relief capacity-building to Cambodia and Timor-Leste. More significantly, Japan provided a loan for the sale of 10 new patrol vessels to the Philippines, and committed to helping the Philippine coast guard improve its surveillance capacity. In return, Manila may grant Japan access to some of the Philippines’ naval bases.

Japan is in a geostrategic sweet spot to engage and be engaged by ASEAN. The reality is that, while ASEAN’s economic ties with China are growing faster than at any time in the past, countries in Southeast Asia often look to the United States as the region’s sole stabilizing force and security provider. This creates tensions that, if continued indefinitely, could lead to conflict between Beijing and Washington.  Japan is in a position to fill both roles; its vast economic and investment footprint in Southeast Asia becomes a strategic asset in Abe’s engagement of ASEAN countries. By stepping up its security presence, Tokyo could play an important role in maintaining regional stability . Japan is already among the largest trading partners and foreign investors in many ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. In the past year, a stronger yen and high corporate liquidity have created a new wave of Japanese foreign direct investment across Southeast Asia, including in Myanmar where China has long been the dominant economic player.

Japanese and Indonesian officials earlier this year agreed to open a new chapter in bilateral military cooperation. When General Eiji Kimizuka, chief of staff of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces, visited Indonesia in January, Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro publicly expressed his understanding of and support for Japan’s plans to develop its self-defense forces.

Philippine foreign minister Albert Del Rosario also said he supports a greater security presence for Japan. Meanwhile, Tokyo relaxed its self-imposed ban on arms exports in 2012 and is now considering the sale of submarines to Australia and Vietnam. It has also granted aid to Indonesia for the construction of patrol vessels.

In the past, governments in Southeast Asia did not always understand or recognize the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance to Washington’s wider engagement in Asia. Yet, they now see a strong Japan that dares to lead and a vibrant U.S.-Japan alliance as critical to regional stability and the shaping of future geopolitics in the Asia Pacific. It is a telling sign when 78 percent of Filipinos and 80 percent of Indonesians surveyed say they have a favorable view of Japan, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

The best scenario for the autonomy and stability of Southeast Asian states is one in which Washington views its alliance with Japan and overall Asia strategy as two sides of the same coin. A strong alliance with Japan affords the United States the resources to sustain its engagement with and role of security provider in the Asia Pacific, especially in the context of ongoing budget constraints in the United States. As the United States and Japan announced on October 3 the frameworks of the broadened security alliance following the 2+2 ministerial meeting in Tokyo, the Japanese government had also agreed to expand military assistance to Southeast Asian countries in order to help them deter threats associated with China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

As much as ASEAN welcomes the U.S. rebalance, it is concerned about whether the policy can be sustained in the long run. Already the Syria conflict and the peace process in the Middle East have begun to consume much of the White House’s and State Department’s energies. In this context, Tokyo should realize that it is the only other actor in the Pacific theater with the tools and credibility to effectively champion democratic values, the rule of law, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and freedom of navigation and commerce. The Abe government has an opportunity to not only reverse Japan’s decline, but also help shape the future of the region, this time with support from Southeast Asian friends.

Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a Research Associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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