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Japan and Southeast Asia

The notion of a natural link between Japan and Southeast Asia was long current in Japan. The economic complementarity of Japan and ASEAN was obvious; japanese were also intermittently charmed by notions of philosophical and cultural affinity, and some liked to think of themselves as "asia's spokesman" in the counsels of the west.

For thirty years, however, Japanese suppressed these notions of complementarity and affinity and had been especially sensitive to the legacy of suspicion and ill-feeling created in Southeast Asia by Japan's ill-starred effort to establish a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Further, Japan's political interest in insuring that the region did not fall under the control or influence of hostile powers seemed, until Vietnam proved impossible to manage, adequately protected by the USA. Japan concentrated on the expansion of commercial links, riding in the late 1960s the region's "Vietnam boom" and winning a dominant share of the region's industrial goods markets. It also became, in the 1960's, Southeast Asia's major market for raw materials. Well over half of Japan's economic assistance was directed toward the region, initially in the form of reparations, subsequently and increasingly as a device to expand export markets and improve access to supplies. To a much more modest extent, Japan's economic assistance programs probably were motivated by Japanese sympathy for US political and strategic goals in the region.

Until the late 1970s, however, Japan did not recognize either the need or the feasibility of a comprehensive economic/political strategy for Southeast Asia. In the area of economic aid, they felt put upon by Southeast Asian demands which both sides tended to consider to be war reparations. They rarely injected their judgments as to what a country or the area "needed," but rather acceded to each country's ordering of priorities and then "paid off" to the extent budgets permitted. Japan's traditionally cautious and defensive foreign policy stance, its desire to stay out of big power political rivalries in the region, its sensitivity to accusations at home and abroad of economic imperialism all combined to inhibit a firm or fast commitment.

The Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was established with the signing of the Declaration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Bangkok Declaration). The five original nations are Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia followed by Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. ASEAN serves as a regional cooperative organization composed of ten Member States. ASEAN has experienced rapid economic growth and is expected to play a role as a center of growth that is open to the world.

A free and open maritime order based on the rule of law is the cornerstone of the peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan would like to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific for the development of this region. Included in this are the basic principles of ASEAN’s centrality and openness shared by East Asia Summit (EAS) participating countries. Japan has taken concrete steps towards cooperation. In addition to implementing the joint hydrological surveys in the Straits of Singapore and Malacca, Japan worked to build capacity and strengthen enforcement of maritime law. Japan was also advancing high quality infrastructure projects centered on the East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC) and the Southern Economic Corridor (SEC) that connect the Mekong region.

The United States is opposed to the EAS because of the potential for overlap with APEC. Japan, on the other hand, was more concerned about ASEAN Plus 3 (Japan, China, Republic of Korea) because the organization is dominated by China. The United States was more concerned about a "talk shop" like the EAS that includes a number of democratic countries, than with ASEAN Plus 3, which had an elaborate structure of sub-groups and an action agenda that is dominated by China. As in much of its Asia policy, Japan's view of regional architecture reflected its preoccupation with the PRC.

Trade ministers of the remaining 11 countries of the expansive Pacific Rim trade pact abandoned by US President Donald Trump reached a deal November 10, 2017 to salvage the agreement without participation by the United States. Previously known as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), it now will be known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The TPP was a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” and was seen as helping the United States, which is the world’s largest economy, lead other countries in a strategic bulwark to temper a rising China, the world’s No. 2 economy. On 08 March 2018 the 11 participating countries signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership in Santiago, Chile. This agreement has substantial strategic significance because it will maintain the high-level content of the TPP Agreement which promotes the liberalization of trade in goods and services and the liberalization and facilitation of investment in the Asia-Pacific region. Countries signing the deal are Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Australia, Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, and Peru are also included.

By 2019, as Sino-Japanese relations soured, Tokyo was boosting political, economic and defense ties with Southeast Asia in a bid to strengthen its position in the region. Japanese companies invested heavily in the region, taking advantage of its lower labor costs by locating significant portions of their manufacturing activities there. Additionally, Southeast Asia has long served as an important supplier of raw materials to Japan, especially gas from Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia, as well as coal from Indonesia. In turn, Japanese firms have sought to increase their exports of manufactured goods and services to the region, with bilateral trade between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) amounting to $248 billion in 2011.

But while this close relationship has existed for decades, ties have intensified since the return to power of conservative PM Shinzo Abe in December 2012. "Prime Minister Abe signaled the increasing importance of this region to Japan by making Southeast Asia the destination for his first overseas trip during his second term," James D. J. Brown, an expert on international affairs at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, told DW 28 Marc h2019.

A key factor in this context, say experts, were the anti-Japanese riots in China in late 2012, which were triggered by territorial disputes over the islets of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain in the East China Sea (ECS), which both countries claim. Japanese multinational corporations recognized the risks to their global supply chain from having too much dependence on China-based production, and started shifting their investments away from China and increasingly setting their sights on the ASEAN region.

Other factors pushing Japanese multinationals towards lower wage economies such as Vietnam and Indonesia are China's rising manufacturing costs and the overall economic slowdown. This is because, if Chinese growth were to grind to a halt, the negative effect that this would undoubtedly have on the Japanese economy could be partially offset by strong economic relations with ASEAN. As labor shortages begin to intensify in Japan, many more Japanese firms are likely to consider relocating their manufacturing activities to Southeast Asia.

Tokyo has also been alarmed at China's growing assertiveness in territorial disputes not only in the ECS but also in the South China Sea (SCS). Japan sees China in the ECS and SCS as attempting to become the regional hegemon. The ECS dispute is not really about the islets but rather about access to the Asia Pacific and pushing out US influence, while the SCS row is mainly about trade and energy security for both China and Japan. China sees the SCS as its backyard that requires securitization while Japan sees the region as a crucial sea lane.

While Japan is no SCS littoral state and is not party to the territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, Tokyo views the issue as extremely important to its national security given that a large proportion of the country's trade passes through these disputed waters, including all of the vital energy resources that Japan imports from the Middle East.

Japan has been actively seeking to strengthen relations with ASEAN, and in particular with those states in the bloc that are most willing to stand up to China's behavior. Japan's security cooperation is directed primarily towards the Philippines and Vietnam, since both of these states have serious territorial disputes with China over the SCS. This resulted in Japan taking the controversial step of reinterpreting the country's pacifist constitution to permit the use of military force in a wider range of circumstances as well as significantly easing its long-standing restrictions of arms sales. Moreover, Tokyo has been ramping up of efforts to intensify defense and security exchanges and providing assistance for ASEAN governments to build up their maritime security capacity.

Closer economic and security relations with Japan are clearly in the interest of Southeast Asian states. Many Southeast Asian countries have strong trade and investment ties with China but are becoming increasingly concerned about its military assertiveness. Therefore strengthening ties with Japan is seen as one approach by some of these nations to reduce their vulnerability to China.

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Page last modified: 18-05-2019 18:48:24 ZULU