Japan’s Return to ASEAN - Bringing Together the Wisdom to Keep China in Check

Kiichi Fujiwara

Professor of International Politics at the University of Tokyo


Japan is back in Southeast Asia. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has chosen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the destination of his first overseas tour since taking office. He visited all the ten ASEAN Member States (AMS), and when he did, he invited the leader of each country to Tokyo for a special Japan-ASEAN summit in late December. As a longtime student of Southeast Asian affairs, I feel very pleased to see the revival of these top-level interactions.

Close relations with Southeast Asian nations have been one of the main pillars of Japan’s postwar diplomacy. Behind this, there was the need for Japan to win back the trust from countries which were turned into battlegrounds during World War II, along with its economic interests to secure overseas markets for Japanese exports. As economic ties deepened, thanks to war reparations to these countries, which were later replaced by the government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), as well as to the promotion of the regional division-of-labor system (known also as the “flying geese” pattern of development), political cooperation with AMS has also advanced, so much so that former premier Kiichi Miyazawa once described ASEAN as Japan’s vital constituency.

However, as AMS achieved a certain level of fundamental economic development, enabling them to take off on their own, without the need of economic aid from Japan, the economic diplomacy pursued by the Japanese government receded, and Japan’s direct investments in the region also declined due to a prolonged business slump. ASEAN Secretary-General once asked me whether Japan had lost interest in AMS, with the end of Keizo Obuchi’s administration. Japan thus gradually became distanced itself from ASEAN.

In the meantime, China has approached AMS in place of Japan. Leveraging the momentum as a rising economic power, China has pushed its economic diplomacy, and as trade between AMS and China expanded, ASEAN-China ties grew tighter.

For AMS, however, China was also a military threat. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea between the Philippines, Vietnam and China have been escalating since the 1990s, and as China stepped up its territorial demand in 2009 claiming the disputed waters as its “core interests,” ASEAN became increasingly wary of China. At the expanded ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in 2010, with Vietnam as chair, a fierce debate took place with China over their territorial and maritime disputes. AMS thus developed a conflicting two-way approach to deal with China, which was to raise the military guard against it while seeking closer economic links.

Behind Japan’s pivot to revisit ASEAN was the Abe administration’s strategic policy to deter China’s moves in this region through the building of a network to contain China by aligning with those AMS which are facing territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Of course, that is not the only reason. Under President Barack Obama, the United States had shifted its foreign and security policy emphasis more toward ASEAN. Japanese companies have also started redirecting their investment to AMS, with the most flowing into Indonesia, to prevent them from being overly dependent on the Chinese markets, thereby to hedge the China risk. So, it was not just the China containment policy that triggered Japan’s return to ASEAN.

Even so, it is undeniable that Japan’s desire to deter China in this region acted as a motive to return to ASEAN. And I also support the policy to deepen cooperation with those countries in the region that share the sense of wariness against China. The problem is how. If this strategy to “keep China in check” is executed mainly in the form of containment policy using military power like during the Cold War period, it could lead to decoupling of Asia and the heightening of tensions in the region.

An international conference on Asian security, organized by five Asian and US universities, was held at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on December 13-14, 2013. This conference was a good opportunity for me to learn how ASEAN countries perceived Japan’s return to the region.

What I found there was that, while the Abe administration’s strong interest in ASEAN was already well known and favorably received, AMS were also very cautious about the risk of them being used as the pawns to contain China. Since the policies taken towards that country by each member state differ widely, mandating a toughening stance against China could disrupt the unity enjoyed among AMS, Their interest apparently is in maintaining good relations with both Japan and China, while avoiding a situation where they will be forced to choose which side they prefer to keep good relations with. Their real intention is to make the best use of the great powers, and avoid being used by them as their followers. This is quite a self-centered way of thinking. But come to think about it, it is understandable as their policy.

An interesting point to note at this conference was that, during the heated discussions on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a Singaporean scholar emphasized the need to seek solution through international law and organizations, such as the International Court of Justice and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Of course, disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea cannot be handled the same way, nor is certain whether China would agree on finding a solution through international legal procedures. Even so, I found it very smart and ASEAN-like to show a calm attitude and propose that territorial and maritime disputes should be solved in the context of international law, through the international judiciary system, and other relevant institutions.

Throughout Northeast and Southeast Asia, ASEAN is the only regional organization that is effective, and all member states composing it are not great powers. For these countries, which do not have the option to solve conflictmatters by the the overwhelming power of armed force, the only way they could confront military tensions would be either to rely on great powers, or to make full use of international law and organizations. And if they want to avoid full dependence on major powers, even while utilizing them wherever possible, then there will be no other choice but to ensure their interests through international organizations and systems.

They place importance on international law and systems, all the more because they are not major powers. Isn’t there something that Japan can also learn from this wisdom displayed by these small, non-power-oriented states? In dealing with territorial disputes, I think Japan should try to address them, not only with force, but also through cooperation with other countries of the world, and encourage China to comply more with international law and and international institutions.

This column has been published in the Asahi Shimbun Newspaper dated December 18, 2013