The Multilateralist

Japan’s ASEAN charm offensive

Japan’s ASEAN charm offensive

Guest post by Prashanth Parameswaran

Just weeks after Japan’s election, new prime minister Shinzo Abe and his finance and foreign ministers have already traveled to seven of the ten ASEAN countries. Why is Tokyo paying so much attention to Southeast Asia? Media reports have highlighted Japan’s deteriorating relations with China over territorial disputes as the main reason for its ASEAN embrace. 

In fact, the rationale is much broader. ASEAN and Japan are celebrating the 40th anniversary of their enduring relationship this year. The rich symbolism that often accompanies ASEAN anniversaries with its dialogue partners, along with converging interests, have led the two to cement ties. Tokyo needs markets to get out of its fourth recession since 2000, while ASEAN wants partners to help it build a more economically integrated region. The two are also facing common security challenges, from natural disasters to cyberwarfare to the rise of China.

During his trip to Indonesia, Abe unveiled the five principles that would govern Japan’s approach to ASEAN. They included promoting democracy and human rights, enhancing economic ties, ensuring freedom of navigation and maritime security, strengthening youth exchanges and protecting Asia’s rich culture.

His administration has already made progress on some of these principles during this round of visits. On maritime security, Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida discussed giving the Philippine coast guard 10 patrol vessels to better secure its territorial claims against Beijing. Japanese officials have also indicated that they will continue assisting Myanmar’s development and possibly bankroll cross-border infrastructure projects like the Dawei port project between Nyapidaw and Thailand.

Yet Tokyo faces several challenges as it courts ASEAN. To some, Abe’s rhetoric on democracy and human rights rings hollow: he was silent on those issues in Vietnam despite a recent government crackdown there. And while Japan and Southeast Asian states both have territorial disputes with China, any sense that Tokyo is enlisting ASEAN in a broad effort to contain Beijing could produce a squabble between the organization’s hawks and doves.

Japan’s domestic priorities may also make advancing the relationship difficult. Japan’s seventh prime minister in just six years must secure his political legitimacy while reviving the country’s moribund economy.  Over the next few months, his administration will likely be consumed by its main short-term goal of securing victory in this summer’s Upper House elections.

But if Abe is as serious about Southeast Asia as the first weeks of his premiership suggest, his administration may be able to sustain this engagement. In 1977, former Japanese prime minister Takeo Fukuda famously spoke of a "heart-to-heart" understanding in ASEAN-Japan relations. For the moment at least, the passion is back.

Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a freelance journalist. He blogs about Asian affairs at The Asianist and you can follow him on Twitter @TheAsianist.