MANILA – A discernible pattern has emerged in Japan’s foreign policy over the last decade. All three of the latest Japanese prime ministers have chosen Southeast Asia as one of their first official trips, underscoring the centrality of the region to Tokyo’s regional strategy.
Upon his return to power in late-2012, then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe chose Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members as his first destinations. Just months into power, he visited three key regional states, including Thailand and Indonesia, while dispatching his defense and foreign ministers to multiple other regional states simultaneously.
In 2020, then-prime minister Yoshihide Suga followed in the footsteps of his mentor, choosing Vietnam and Indonesia as his inaugural foreign visits shortly after coming to power. Current Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who served as the chief diplomat of his predecessors, has similarly made Southeast Asia a key foreign policy priority.
Having already visited Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chair, the Japanese leader embarked on a week-long foreign trip that took him to Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam in recent days, before flying to Britain and the European Union.
Far from just playing Robin to America’s Batman, Japan has rapidly emerged as a major force in Southeast Asia.
Already a top trading and investment partner for ASEAN, Japan has also emerged as a key defense and strategic partner to many Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Authoritative surveys also show that regional policy elites have consistently rated Japan as ASEAN’s most trusted foreign partner.
During his trip to the region, Kishida sought to fortify and expand burgeoning strategic ties with regional states, while rallying support against a resurgent China as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Perturbed by Tokyo’s foreign policy activism, China’s state-backed Global Times accused Japan of “not [being] reconciled to just being an ally of the US” but instead “pursuing to be a great power like the US” in Asia.
For almost a century, Japan has been the engine of industrialization and economic development in Southeast Asia. Even the rise of China hasn’t dented Japan’s economic importance to the region.
In fact, Tokyo continues to be the largest source of big-ticket infrastructure investment in Southeast Asia. In recent years, Japan’s investment pledges to the region amounted to a whopping $367 billion, far larger than China’s $255 billion of mostly unfulfilled pledges.
Even amid the pandemic in 2020, bilateral trade between Japan and ASEAN reached $204 billion, while Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) flows into Southeast Asia reached $8.5 billion.
Crucially, unlike China, which enjoys a huge trade surplus with many of its neighbors, Japan tends to be a big export destination for Southeast Asian countries, particularly for intermediate goods and semiconductors.
Compared to China’s, Japanese investments also tend to create more jobs for host nations and proponents say are more compliant with prevailing standards on good governance and environmental sustainability. Under its “China Plus One” strategy, Japan has further expanded its investment footprint in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Vietnam, where major Japanese companies have established globally-integrated production plants.
Over the past decade, however, Tokyo has become a more multidimensional power in the region, leveraging its economic influence to build defense and strategic ties with key ASEAN nations.
In his 2013 speech, titled “Japan and ASEAN, Always in Tandem,” Abe emphasized how “ASEAN and Japan have gone beyond their economic relations to forge a relationship that takes on responsibility for the security of the region.”
Since then, Japan has never looked back, carefully cultivating comprehensive partnerships with regional states. Last month, Japanese defense and foreign ministers conducted their first-ever “Two Plus Two” dialogue with their Filipino counterparts in Tokyo, where the two sides agreed to expand defense ties, including a newly-signed Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreements (ACSAs).
A fellow democracy and US treaty ally, the Philippines has largely hued to Japan’s and the West’s position on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, on China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Singapore is the only regional state to have imposed sanctions on Russia in line with the new round of Western punitive measures against Moscow.
Kishida’s recent visit, in particular, targeted regional fence-sitters, who have refused to adopt a tough position on either Russia’s actions in Europe or China’s in the adjacent waters. Crucially, Indonesia currently chairs the G20 while Thailand currently chairs the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Russia has a seat at both multilateral platforms.
Last Friday, Kishida met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to discuss not only bilateral relations but also broader strategic issues in the Indo-Pacific.
In a thinly-veiled jab at China’s maritime assertiveness in Asian waters, both sides confirmed their commitment to a rules-based regional order in accordance to Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Similar to the Philippines, Indonesia also has “two plus two” talks with Japan amid booming bilateral defense ties.
“We are facing many challenges, including the situations in Ukraine, the East and South China seas and North Korea, and maintaining and strengthening the rules-based, free and open international order has become more important,” said Kishida during a joint press conference with his Indonesian counterpart.
While Indonesia has refused to disinvite Russia from this year’s G20 Summit, with President Vladimir Putin signaling his interest in personally attending the event, it has decided to also invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the meeting. The G20 in Indonesia, therefore, could serve as a potential venue for direct negotiations between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders.
In Vietnam, Kishida gently sought to dissuade the Southeast Asian country from further expanding its already robust defense and strategic ties with Russia. Similar to Laos, Vietnam has consistently abstained from voting against Moscow at the United Nations amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
In recent decades, Vietnam has relied on Russia for up to 80% of its defense imports, including state-of-the-art submarines and fighter jets. While recognizing that Vietnam won’t jettison its defense ties with Russia overnight, Kishida successfully nudged his hosts towards taking a more sympathetic position towards Ukraine.
Following his meeting with Vietnamese Pham Minh Chinh, both sides agreed to provide humanitarian assistance as well as call for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine. The leaders emphasized how they “strongly oppose threats and uses of weapons of mass destruction and attacks on civilians.”
During a joint news conference, the Vietnamese leader announced an unprecedented $500,000 humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Kishida hailed the move as “a positive step.”
“We confirmed that countries must abide by the principle of respecting the independence and the sovereignty of states. In any region, changing the status quo by force is not permissible,” Kishida said during his news conference in Hanoi.
The Southeast Asian country also recently walked back from its earlier plan to conduct joint military drills with Russia, likely in a nod to Hanoi’s partners in Japan and the West.
During his trip to Bangkok, a top destination for Japanese investments, Kishida met Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, where the two sides agreed to coordinate humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and uphold a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
During their meeting, the two sides indirectly criticized Russia’s latest aggression by underscoring how they will “never tolerate any infringement of sovereignty and territorial integrity in any region” and jointly oppose “any attempts to change the status quo by force” as well as “the threat…or use of weapons of mass destruction.”
Although a US treaty ally, Thailand, similar to Indonesia but unlike Vietnam, has generally adopted a friendly position vis-à-vis China, often refusing to openly criticize Beijing’s aggressive actions in adjacent waters. Thus, getting Thailand on board with any broader regional effort against China has been a top strategic priority for Japan.
During his visit, Kishida announced a $385 million assistance package to Thailand to boost Covid-19 pandemic recovery in the Southeast Asian country, while the two sides also finalized a ground-breaking new defense deal.
“The signing of our defense equipment and technology transfer agreement is a major step forward in expanding bilateral defense cooperation,” Kishida said during his joint press conference with Prayut, following the signing of the new Japan-Thailand ACSA defense deal.
The Thai leader praised the new pact as a crucial element in “promot[ing] Japanese investment in the Thai defense industry,” while announcing that Thailand has elevated its relations with Japan to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian