For Japan, Southeast Asia is vital. 42% of Japan’s maritime trade and 80% of its oil imports pass through the South China Sea. Furthermore, as Japan has been relatively isolated in Northeast Asia due to its lingering historical grievances with China and the two Koreas, Southeast Asia presents Tokyo alternative diplomatic options. Even though Japan lacks direct territorial claims to the area like Vietnam or the Philippines, the economic, security, and diplomatic gravity of the region prove to be significant enough for Japan to consider Southeast Asia and the South China Sea as crucial to its national interests.
Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has become increasingly engaged in Southeast Asia. Take its involvement in Cambodia. Japan took an assertive role in resolving the Cambodian Civil War (1978-1991), playing peacemaker between the forces of Hun Sen, the Khmer Rouge, and Prince Sihanouk. Japan’s contribution was apparent in the country’s huge financial support for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which was tasked with helping to transform Cambodia from a war-torn nation to a functioning democratic state. Japan also occupied the top leadership role of UNTAC with Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi as the mission’s chief. Japanese involvement in Cambodia was consequential, as it signaled the country’s increased engagement with Southeast Asia and the world more generally.
In terms of security, Japan has actively supported ASEAN member states, especially those states that have territorial disputes with China. However, instead of sending troops to the region, which the Japanese Constitution forbids, Japan opts for a more subtle approach. Specifically, the country seeks to enhance the defense capacity of ASEAN member states with joint training and exercise programs, improving the ability of ASEAN militaries in peacekeeping and disaster relief. Japan has also transferred naval military equipment, such as patrol boats, to ASEAN nations. Furthermore, to enhance trust between the Japanese military with those of ASEAN members, Japan has been engaging in high-level military dialogues with ASEAN member states, especially with Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries at the forefront of the South China Sea disputes. Overall, these measures allow Japan to strengthen its partners in the South China Sea in a manner that does not require Japan’s heavy military presence while also slowing China’s encroachment in the area.
Japan’s economic engagement with the region has also been strong. In 2018, Japan’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in ASEAN was nearly 30 billion USD, nearly 56% of Japanese FDI in Asia that year. Japan has also been actively establishing close economic relations with ASEAN in other ways. Indeed, within the span of six years, from 2002 to 2008, Japan ratified economic partnership agreements with all 10 ASEAN member states. Japan has also been advocating for increased economic integration within ASEAN with its cooperation in the East-West Economic Corridor, Southern Economic Corridor (for continental member states), and ASEAN Economic Corridor. These economic activities help enhance Japanese influence in Southeast Asia and counter China’s economic clout in the region. Moreover, Japan’s support for increased regional linkages helps Southeast Asia to become more economically robust, thus lessening the region’s economic dependence on China.
Japan’s position in Southeast Asia is further buttressed by its pragmatic approach toward ASEAN nations. This pragmatism is manifest in Japan’s relatively lenient attitude toward many authoritarian states in the region such as Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. Instead of criticizing and punishing authoritarian states for their lack of human rights and democracy, Japan has remained accommodating toward these states, emphasizing economic development over democracy. Recently, Japan has maintained cordial relations with Myanmar despite the country’s serious human rights violations toward its Rohingya minority. Though morally questionable, this pragmatic approach has helped Japan to maintain good relationships with Southeast Asia, a region where authoritarianism is still dominant (according to Freedom House, no country in Southeast Asia is “free”).
Japan’s increased engagement in Southeast Asia is the result of the confluence of two phenomena: 1) Tokyo’s questioning of Washington’s commitment to the American-Japanese alliance following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and 2) historical distrust of Japan in Northeast Asia. The end of the Cold War brought uncertainties to the U.S.-Japan alliance as the communist threat receded. Furthermore, in Northeast Asia, the historical controversies with China and the two Koreas have continued to confound Japan’s diplomatic efforts. Unlike Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia offers Japan diplomatic choices. Furthermore, as most of Japan’s commercial navigation passes through Southeast Asia, Japan must become more engaged in the region to protect its economic interests from a more assertive China.
With increasing Japanese presence in the military and economic spheres, Southeast Asian nations should welcome engagement with Tokyo as a means of diluting growing Chinese influence in the region. However, Japan must remain nuanced in its approach to Southeast Asia. Such subtlety is meant to accommodate ASEAN states’ divergent opinions about China. This, in turn, makes any forceful effort to create an anti-China coalition in Southeast Asia a potential failure. As a result, Japan chooses to slowly lay the foundations for a future alliance by gradually prying ASEAN states from China’s influence with its economic and security assistance.
With a pragmatic approach toward the region’s political systems, an accommodating attitude toward ASEAN states’ concern about China, and substantial economic and security support, Japan has successfully courted the populations of ASEAN member states. In a 2019 opinion poll, 93% of the ASEAN public considered Japan as a friend, and 87% said that Japan’s role was important for the region. Given these positive aspects, the Japan-ASEAN relations will remain cordial, further facilitating more cooperation in the foreseeable future.