Exhibition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation at the ASEAN Secretariat. (Photo by Kusuma Pandu Wijaya / ASEAN Secretariat).

A New Chapter in ASEAN-Japan Relations


ASEANFocus is privileged to feature the Secretary-General of the ASEAN-Japan Centre, Dr Kunihiko Hirabayashi. He provides a perspective on the ASEAN-Japan relationship after 50 years, and how Japan intends to substantiate the new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN.

Dr Kunihiko Hirabayashi is the former Regional Advisor and Regional Chief of Health and HIV/AIDS at the UNICEF East Asian and Pacific Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the former Director of the UNICEF Office for Japan and the Republic of Korea. Prior to that, he was trained as a heart surgeon in Japan. Subsequently, he made a career shift to international cooperation, where he focused on technical assistance in hospitals and other health systems in developing countries for about 10 years. As the current Secretary-General of the ASEAN-Japan Centre, he aspires to continue the Centre’s 40-year history of excellence in serving as a bridge between ASEAN Member States and Japan to promote trade, investment, tourism, and people-to-people exchanges.

AF: 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan relations. A commemorative summit is expected to take place in December this year in Tokyo to celebrate the historical milestone. What are the significant achievements in ASEAN-Japan relations in the past half a century?

Dr Hirabayashi: The 50-year history of ASEAN and Japan can be summarised in three words: coexistence, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

Coexistence refers to the fact that ASEAN and Japan have helped each other in times of crisis, as indispensable neighbours. For example, in 1997-1999, Japan provided ASEAN countries with more than US$40 billion in economic assistance in response to the Asian Financial Crisis. In 2011, after the Great East Japan Earthquake, ASEAN countries provided Japan with a variety of assistance, including donations, relief supplies, and the dispatch of rescue teams. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the two sides collaborated closely on issues such as the supply of vaccines, and cooperation to support economic and social recovery. The various forms of cooperation have helped the two sides to overcome many crises, not only at the state and regional levels, but also through the mutual support of people from all walks of life and through generations.

Cooperation refers to the fact that ASEAN and Japan have worked together for the economy, society, and culture. The two sides began dialogue in the 1970s, when Japan was in the midst of its high-growth period. At that time, the focus was on importing resources from ASEAN countries. However, since the Japan-ASEAN Economic Cooperation Special Agreement entered into force in 2008, both sides have further strengthened their cooperation in various areas, including trade, investment, economic cooperation, infrastructure, and human resource development.

Mutual understanding has also deepened through the growth of people-to-people and cultural exchanges, facilitated by various non-governmental organisations, business ties, academic networks, and individual travel and exchange activities.

For the past 50 years, ASEAN-Japan relations and cooperation have been guided by the “Fukuda Doctrine” announced by former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda in 1977, at the first Japan-ASEAN Forum. These principles were namely: 1) Japan will not become a military power; 2) Japan will build a relationship of “heart-to-heart contact” with ASEAN; and 3) Japan and ASEAN are equal partners. These principles have served the relations well in promoting greater trust and confidence.

AF: Japan is expected to establish a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN this year. What are the new areas of cooperation we can expect to see under this new enhanced partnership?

Dr Hirabayashi: I believe that the key narrative for the next 50 years is “co-creation” based on mutual trust. This approach is based on the policy recommendations by the Japan Business Federation in June 2021, the remarks by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the 25th ASEAN-Japan Summit in November 2022, and the report by the ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation 50th Anniversary Expert Panel in February 2023. The approach also takes into account the ASEAN-Japan Economic Co-Creation Vision published by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), and the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry on August 22, 2023,

Co-creation refers to the intention to work together to create new economic and social values based on the trust cultivated in the last 50 years. I believe that co-creation will help us identify opportunities for new cooperation as we jointly find solutions to new or re-emerging geopolitical, economic, demographic, and social challenges, such as climate change and pandemics.

Specifically, the new vision for ASEAN-Japan cooperation is expected to focus on supporting the four areas of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP): advancing supply chains through digital technology innovation; promoting entrepreneurship through training and the creation of robust networks for knowledge-sharing; and addressing common challenges, such as poverty, inequality, and climate change.

To achieve this new vision, I think ASEAN and Japan need to further develop and deepen the four pillars of the 40th anniversary vision: “partners in peace and security,” “partners for prosperity,” “partners for quality life,” and a “heart-to-heart” partnership.

Delivery of WASH supplies to Oddar Meanchey province, Cambodia, with the support of the Government of Japan. (Photo by Heng Santepheap / UNICEF Cambodia)

AF: Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) share many fundamental principles in promoting a rules-based order and stability in the region. Can you share with us some key ASEAN-Japan initiatives under the AOIP?

Dr Hirabayashi: In my opinion, all of Japan’s cooperation on the AOIP has been to promote a rules-based, free, open, and stable Indo-Pacific region. At the 25th ASEAN-Japan Summit, PM Kishida underscored Japan’s continued support for ASEAN unity and centrality. It is evident that the AOIP has provided a foundation for Japan to collaborate with ASEAN in realising the shared vision for both parties.

With regard to the key ASEAN-Japan initiatives, PM Kishida highlighted 89 concrete cooperation projects aligned with the AOIP at the summit. Notable ongoing projects are in areas such as connectivity, economic resilience, climate action and sustainability, health and emerging diseases.

In addition, PM Kishida also announced that Japan will enhance cooperation in the areas of economics, maritime, connectivity through quality infrastructure investment, healthcare, disaster prevention, and addressing climate change including through the realisation of the Asia Zero Emissions Community (AZEC).

These initiatives closely align with ASEAN’s established priorities.

AF: What more can ASEAN do to enhance the AOIP’s relevance in a region that is increasingly affected by major power rivalry and how can Japan help ASEAN to be more resilient in a fragmented world?

Dr Hirabayashi: I believe that ASEAN can make the AOIP more relevant in a volatile region by taking five actions.

First, placing young people at the centre of AOIP: So far, Indo-Pacific cooperation has focused on Track I cooperation at the government level, but it is necessary to expand activities at the Track II level and beyond. I strongly believe that if ASEAN can effectively mobilise and enhance the leadership of young people in the economic, social, security, and cultural arenas, it can enhance the relevance of the AOIP. By giving young people a voice and an effective platform in core dialogue mechanisms, ASEAN can leverage on their creativity, energy, and enthusiasm to address the region’s challenges and opportunities.

Second, committing to delivering results for people in ASEAN: As we all know, one of the core objectives of the AOIP is strengthening collaboration in common priority issues, including maritime cooperation, connectivity, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and economic and other possible areas of cooperation. ASEAN must show its commitment to jointly addressing common challenges in the Indo-Pacific region in order to gain support from their people. This commitment not only boosts the relevance of AOIP but also ensures that it remains a pivotal document in the region’s wider cooperative framework. 2023 stands as a landmark year, with Indonesia, the primary advocate of the AOIP, as the ASEAN Chair. The AOIP should not merely be an outlook, but it should ensure that collaboration lead to tangible results that positively impact the people of ASEAN.

Third, strengthening internal unity: If the unity of ASEAN is affected, the value of AOIP will also be lost. In that sense, I believe ASEAN needs to strengthen its internal unity to be more effective in dealing with both internal and external challenges. This includes resolving internal disputes and disagreements and building consensus on common goals and interests.

Fourth, enhancing inclusivity: The AOIP has always emphasised inclusivity, and ASEAN should continue its efforts to ensure that all regional stakeholders, regardless of their size and influence, have an equal voice in shaping the region’s future. The establishment of an Indo-Pacific Business Advisory Council could be worth considering as a way to enhance inclusivity in the AOIP. The Council can serve as a forum for business communities from ASEAN and the ASEAN dialogue partners, enabling them to participate in developing joint policy recommendations for Indo-Pacific cooperation. It is unclear, however, if this idea would be feasible.

Fifth, ensuring a rules-based order: All member countries should respect the principles of international law. It is necessary to respect all international laws that each country has ratified, and not to pick and choose according to circumstances.

I also believe that Japan can help ASEAN become more resilient in many ways. Japan can also contribute to promoting connectivity in the region by investing in both quality infrastructure projects, including roads, railways, and digital networks, and human capital in ASEAN countries. On the latter, it can provide scholarships, training, and other robust exchange programmes to young people in ASEAN and Japan, such as the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS) programme.

Japan has extensive experience in dealing with global challenges such as maritime security, natural disasters, climate change, and sustainable development. As such, Japan can share its experience and expertise with ASEAN countries to help them address these challenges.

Participants boarding the Nippon Maru – the ship for the Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Programme (SSEAYP). (Photo by SSEAYP Malaysia / WordPress)

AF: Japan is a strong ally of the United States. It is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the IPEF. Do you think Japan’s participation in US-led minilateral initiatives in the region will undermine ASEAN’s centrality in the regional architecture?

Dr Hirabayashi: I am not in a position to comment on Japan’s participation in US-led minilateral initiatives, as it is a complex issue with no simple answer. But I should say, as a person who knows how important ASEAN is for the Japanese people and their future, any initiatives that influence and involve the ASEAN region should not be seen as a new set of norms and rules that could lead to ASEAN being sidelined and bypassed.

I believe that Japan’s participation in US-led minilateral initiatives could prevent undermining or could even strengthen ASEAN’s centrality in the regional architecture. Due to its longstanding cooperation with ASEAN, Japan is deeply aware of the bloc’s concerns. Japan also recognises its crucial role in regional stability in light of its own Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. By engaging in US-led minilateral initiatives, Japan could act as a bridge, aligning these initiatives to be complementary to ASEAN’s core objectives, rather than adversarial.

Japan has clearly expressed its full support for the AOIP, which envisages ASEAN centrality. Japan was the first among ASEAN’s dialogue partners to do so, highlighting its commitment to wider regional cooperation.

AF: Japan has been consistently regarded as the most trusted power in the region in our annual State of Southeast Asia Survey. Japan’s security role in the region may be changing as evidenced in the release of 3 key national security documents in December 2022. Do you think Japan’s changing security role will be well-received in the region?

Dr Hirabayashi: Shortly after the adoption of the three national security documents, an opinion survey conducted by Nikkei among the general Japanese population in December 2022 revealed that 55% of Japanese supported the plan to reinforce Japan’s defence posture. This surprising change in public opinion (in which a majority of Japanese have accepted a major shift in national security policy) can be attributed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the increased risk of “a Taiwan contingency”.

On the other hand, while 47% of respondents supported an increase in the defence budget (compared to 45% who opposed it), 86% of respondents thought that the government’s rationale for tax increases to be insufficient.

Southeast Asians may argue that Japan needs to do more to contribute to regional security, particularly in light of China’s growing military power. However, others may be concerned that Japan’s increased security role could undermine ASEAN centrality.

I believe that Japan has sincerely provided satisfactory rationales for its actions and had assured ASEAN of its intentions. It is essential that Japan continues demonstrate its concrete contributions to peace and regional security, and to express its full support for ASEAN centrality and solidarity through all opportunities, channels, and levels.

AF: Japan is already part of two key FTAs – RCEP and CPTPP – and has various bilateral agreements with ASEAN economies. Given this strong foundation, what future strategic opportunities does Japan hope to pursue in the region through these alliances? Are new areas of digitalisation or climate change initiatives on the cards?

Dr Hirabayashi: The G7 Leaders’ Statement on Economic Resilience and Economic Security, issued at the Hiroshima G7 Summit in May 2023, emphasised that transparency, diversity, security, sustainability, and reliability are essential principles for building and strengthening resilient supply chain networks with reliable partners, both within and outside the G7. This suggests that Japan will aim to achieve a free and fair trade order and the strengthening of economic security in its trade policy with ASEAN.

Regarding digitalisation, the Future Design and Action Plan for Innovative and Sustainable ASEAN-Japan Economic Co-Creation 2023-2033, published by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and other partner organisations in 2023, identifies the promotion of the digital economy as a key pillar for strengthening connectivity. This plan includes cooperation over a 10-year period to upgrade supply chains through digital technology, digitalising trade in ASEAN, and building capacity for cybersecurity. For instance, under JETRO’s Asia Digital Transformation Promotion Program (ADX), Japan supports joint pilot projects between ASEAN and Japan by subsidising projects that contribute to solving the socio-economic challenges in the ASEAN region with innovative technologies such as digital technology. Between 2020 and 2022, 68 projects were adopted in the fields of mobility, tourism and logistics, environment and energy, agriculture, fisheries, medical and nursing, and manufacturing and human resources.

Regarding climate change and climate mitigation, Japan recognises that there are a variety of realistic pathways to achieving decarbonisation, depending on the circumstances of each country, such as its geographical conditions and stages of development. Japan will continue to support various initiatives and policy coordination efforts in the Asia Zero Emissions Community to promote the introduction of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy management technologies, as well as decarbonisation technologies such as the capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) of hydrogen, ammonia, and carbon dioxide. Japan will also support the development of infrastructure to share electricity throughout ASEAN through the construction of international power grids, and the establishment of a mechanism for the regional trading of greenhouse gas emissions through the construction of a carbon credit market.

The challenges ahead, however, could mean finding an equilibrium between the promotion of free trade and economic security, the promotion of digitalisation and economic security, and the response to climate change and sustainable economic growth.

AF: Japan is facing competition from other regional powers such as China and Republic of Korea in building infrastructure and people-to-people connectivity in ASEAN. What is Japan’s unique characteristic and competitive advantage compared to other regional powers?

Dr Hirabayashi: I think Japan’s unique strength exists in its long history of striving to understand and respect others’ positions and ideas, and working together to solve issues. This is a core value in the Japanese way of life and thinking. In addition, Japan puts an emphasis on agreements, the pursuit of quality rather than quantity, and seeks to adhere to to commitments and common values that ASEAN upholds.

Japan consistently values and upholds its agreements or promises. It also seeks to prioritise joint or “side-by-side” implementation of programmes. For instance, the Japan-Mekong Connectivity Initiative to enhance Japan’s ties with the Mekong region in ASEAN has demonstrated Japan’s unwavering commitment to building infrastructure, human capital development and investment.

While many other nations prioritise “people-to-people” connections, Japan delves deeper, nurturing a “heart-to-heart” bond. In other words, Japan has realised that trust-based partnerships with ASEAN can only be established when Japan fully shares ASEAN’s complex challenges.

By leveraging these strengths, I believe that Japan can further contribute to ASEAN’s sustainable economic and social development.

Editor’s Note:
This is an adapted version of the Insider Views article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2023 published in September 2023. Download the full issue here.

Kunihiko Hirabayashi is Secretary-General of the ASEAN-Japan Centre.