Japan - Southeast Asia

In the early months of 2015 Tokyo has stepped up its engagement with Southeast Asia.   Increasingly concerned with tensions in the South China Sea and the potential for their spillover, Japan has worked with Vietnam and the Philippines to strengthen coast guard and naval capacity.  A new defense agreement with Indonesia, and the establishment of a high-level dialogue on maritime security, underscores a broader worry about China.  To counter China’s economic reach and political influence in the poor states of mainland Southeast Asia, Tokyo has stepped up with a variety of initiatives, including a strategic partnership with Laos.  Although polls indicate very positive views of Japan in Southeast Asia, Tokyo must nevertheless implement new policy initiatives in the region with care, in view of Japan’s own complicated relations with China and a more positive, but no less complicated, relationship with the US.

Two objectives drive Japan’s increasing engagement with Southeast Asia:  stimulating Japanese economic growth through investment in large-scale infrastructure abroad, and supporting regional maritime domain awareness. While Tokyo officially denies any suggestion of rivaling or checking China with these policies, the timing and nature of Japan’s “pivot” to Southeast Asia would suggest otherwise.  The number of “first-ever” Japanese defense initiatives with Southeast Asian countries in the past year, correspond to rising concern in the region over China’s moves in the South China Sea. New developments in regional security relations reflect a revision of Japanese defense guidelines and of the US-Japanese alliance, both of which emphasize greater interaction with regional partners. On the economic side, Japan and China are in direct competition for infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, particularly in Myanmar.  This will likely be the case for the next several years as ASEAN seeks to undergird the ASEAN Economic Community with new transportation grids.

Both Push and Pull: Japan Steps Up in Southeast Asia

Two political surprises in 2016 will affect Japan’s relations with Southeast Asia. The first, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and his subsequent turn toward China, has likely not disturbed Japan’s role as the Philippines’ largest investor, trading partner, and aid donor. However, Duterte’s abrasiveness toward Washington could have a negative effect on the newly-forged Japan-Philippines security partnership and dampen the possibility of triangulating US, Japan, and Philippine cooperation in the South China Sea.  A greater and more long-term impact could be the election of Donald Trump and the resulting uncertainty in US relations with Southeast Asia.  Beyond that broad concern, Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) throws the economic architecture of the Asia-Pacific region into question and could stymie the growth Japan had expected in trade relations with TPP members in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Malaysia. In January 2017, just days before Trump’s inauguration, Prime Minister Abe embarked on a swing through Southeast Asia to make “strategic adjustments” in Japanese relations with the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

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