Tokyo’s Foreign Policy Activism in Southeast Asia
Contrary to the stereotypical view that Japanese foreign policy is generally passive, reactive, and driven primarily by economics (and Washington), the reality is that Tokyo has sought to exercise diplomatic initiatives in Southeast Asia especially over the past 25 years. Ironically, Japan plays a larger political role in Southeast Asia than in its more immediate Northeast Asian neighborhood for at least three reasons.
First, unlike its relations with Beijing, Seoul, and Pyongyang, Tokyo’s ties with Southeast Asian states are very much less bedeviled by unresolved issues of history – including an appropriate apology to the victims of Japanese militarism, the “correct” perspectives that should be adopted in textbooks, and a lack of remorse over the past shown by conservative Japanese politicians. Moreover, the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia was mercifully short (around three years) compared to Tokyo’s lengthy colonization of Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria. While imperial Japan’s original intention was to incorporate Southeast Asia into a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, it incidentally aided the independence movements in Indonesia and Burma toward the end of World War II; Tokyo’s initial victories against the white colonial regimes in Southeast Asia also shattered the myth of white invincibility and eventually facilitated decolonization in that region.
Second, unlike Russia, China, and the two Koreas, the Southeast Asian states do not have any territorial disputes with Japan. Shackled by neither the burden of history nor territorial disputes with Tokyo, Southeast Asian countries welcome Japanese investments and ODA (official development assistance) and are thus more open to Japanese diplomatic initiatives, especially if these are also to their advantage.
Third, Southeast Asia as a region does not have intractable security problems of the same magnitude as Northeast Asia: the heavily militarized and divided Korean Peninsula and the potential flashpoint in the Taiwan Strait. Besides the perennial suspicions of the Chinese and Koreans toward any hint of a larger Japanese political and military role, the problems in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait are simply too big for Japan to chew. In this regard, Southeast Asia is a more conducive environment for Japan to pursue its diplomatic initiatives, especially when the ASEAN states are less hostile toward Tokyo and inter-state relations within the region are less confrontational and warlike.