Japanese Ground Home Defence Forces Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) hit the beach of the Philippine navy training centre facing the South China Sea in San Antonio town, Zambales province, north of Manila on 6 October, 2018, as they join the annual joint US-Philippine marines exercises. (Photo: Ted ALJIBE/ AFP)

Japanese Ground Home Defence Forces Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) hit the beach of the Philippine navy training centre facing the South China Sea in San Antonio town, Zambales province, north of Manila on 6 October, 2018, as they join the annual joint US-Philippine marines exercises. (Photo: Ted ALJIBE/ AFP)

The State of Southeast Asia Survey

Japan and Southeast Asia – Power and Propinquity

Published

The latest State of Southeast Asia Survey is a ringing endorsement of Japan’s decades-long involvement and investment in the region.

If one reads the State of Southeast Asia Survey recently released by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute as a report card, Japan is the star pupil.

Japan, a long-standing partner to Southeast Asia, scores well on several key indicators. Japan is seen as the most trusted power in 2021, with 67.1 per cent of respondents choosing the country. The EU came next at 51.0 per cent, followed by the United States (48.3) and China (16.5 per cent). Respondents see Japan as a responsible power that upholds international law and deem Tokyo to have the necessary economic wherewithal and political will to provide global leadership.

Asked which country they would look to if the United States is “perceived as unreliable”, a clear plurality of respondents – 36.9 per cent – said they would choose Japan. Japan is well ahead of the other powers, such as the European Union (19.3 per cent) and China (18.9 per cent). 

Similarly, Japan and the EU scored well as the “most preferred and trusted strategic partner” for ASEAN amid the uncertainty of Sino-US rivalry. Japan was chosen as the most preferred partner by 39.3 per cent of respondents, making it a close second after the EU at 40.8 per cent.

This is not surprising, given that Japan and the EU are ASEAN’s biggest trading partners after China and the US (fourth and third, respectively). Japan was also the biggest single-country source of foreign direct investment into ASEAN in 2018 (US$21 billion), while EU countries such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany together pumped in US$22 billion. 

Japan’s sterling performance is not difficult to explain. Since the 1960s, Japan has positioned itself as a dependable partner of Southeast Asia. In 1977, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda declared that Tokyo would forswear military power and pursue an “equal relationship” with Southeast Asia. Japan’s actions since have lived up to this promise.

Japan’s sterling performance is not difficult to explain. Since the 1960s, Japan has positioned itself as a dependable partner of Southeast Asia.

In addition to its strong trading relationships with Southeast Asian economies, Tokyo is well ahead of Beijing in the infrastructure race in Southeast Asia media coverage notwithstanding. Japanese-backed infrastructure projects in the region’s six biggest economies – Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam – were valued at US$367 billion as of June 2019. Chinese-backed projects were valued at a smaller US$255 billion.

Despite its post-war pacifist Constitution, Japan has regularly sent naval vessels to the region, such as its Izumo-class carriers and Soryu-class submarines, and sought to bolster the maritime domain awareness capacity of regional states such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Japan is also the key progenitor of the emerging Indo-Pacific strategy, which has been adopted and adapted by other like-minded countries such as Australia, India and the US. The administration of Shinzo Abe coined the term “free and open Indo-Pacific” then adopted by the Trump administration and now the Biden Administration. Japan also supports the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which seeks to avoid targeting China in any regional arrangement.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Japan is viewed in relatively favourable terms when it comes to providing the leadership to maintain the rules-based order and upholding international law. Japan was chosen by 10.5 per cent of respondents, putting it in fourth place behind the EU (32.4 per cent), the US (28.6 per cent) and ASEAN (16.9 per cent). Japan placed third in the 2020 Survey.

Of the 1,032 respondents, 84.6 per cent supported ASEAN taking a principled stand in the South China Sea dispute – one that upholds international law and respects the landmark 2016 arbitral ruling. This aligns with the position of Tokyo, which has constantly called for the primacy of the rule of law in territorial disputes.

An anomaly that stood out from the Survey findings concerns the issue of free trade. Only 15.4 per cent of respondents saw Japan as providing leadership in championing the cause of global free trade. The finding is made more galling by the fact that 22.5 per cent of respondents deemed the US as providing the strongest leadership in this area. This despite the fact that Washington withdrew from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017 and is not part of the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signed last November.

The bump in the US figure is likely due to expectations that the new Biden Administration might take a different tack on global trade. Such expectations could well be misplaced, given the new administration’s lack of wiggle room on trade issues. Conversely, Japan played a clearly underappreciated leading role in steering the remaining 11 countries to formalise the CPTPP after Washington’s TPP withdrawal. Japan has also played a leading role in the RCEP.

In all, the survey findings give a ringing endorsement of Japan’s decades-long involvement and investment in Southeast Asia. The US has repeated ad nauseam that it is a “resident power” in the region; China’s assertion of friendship with ASEAN is received with some measure of concern, but Southeast Asian elites know that Japan is the actual resident power – and a power of consequence.

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