Just 11 months into office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as Japan seeks to further cement its strategic ties with the region at a time when relations with China remain sour.
But some Japanese pundits are skeptical as to whether Japan’s policy of engaging with as many members of ASEAN as possible will bear fruit.
Wrapping up a trip to Cambodia and Laos on Sunday, Abe exuded optimism at a press conference in Vientiane, where he stated that his face-to-face talks with all 10 ASEAN leaders since he took office last December have strengthened mutual trust and given them room to discuss various issues.
“ASEAN is an important partner (of Japan) in ensuring freedom and security (of navigation) in Asian seas,” Abe said at the press conference.
Calling Southeast Asia a hub for future economic growth, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Abe’s visits to ASEAN countries have been “necessary and vital from the viewpoint of attaching strong importance to Asia and neighboring countries.”
“The prime minister’s trips hold symbolic meaning and also show the commitment level of the Japanese leadership in terms of engaging with ASEAN,” said Narushige Michishita, associate professor of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Japan enjoys close economic ties with ASEAN nations, offering official development assistance, either monetary or technical, to boost their infrastructure. Southeast Asia is also seen as a potential market for Japan’s infrastructure exports.
But China is not to be outdone in economic ties with ASEAN. A case in point is Cambodia, where China’s accumulated investment from 1994 to 2011 accounted for about 35 percent of foreign investment, compared with 0.7 percent for Japan.
Among ASEAN nations, Cambodia and Laos are considered particularly “close to China,” according to a Japan-ASEAN source, giving extra meaning to Abe’s two trips in November to these two “pro-China” countries.
Against this backdrop, it was unexpected for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in preliminary negotiations to agree to a Japanese proposal to issue a joint statement about cooperating on maritime security, with China in mind, according to a diplomatic source.
“It is a surprise (for Cambodia) to make this much of a concession,” a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said.
Still, China casts a shadow over Japan’s relations with Southeast Asian nations, with experts saying ASEAN nations are wary of becoming too cozy with Japan at the risk of irking China, a rising economic and military power.
“One can see how Japan’s Southeast Asian diplomacy is influenced by Japan’s China strategy,” said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.
In his talks with ASEAN leaders, Abe has often made an implicit reference to China’s growing assertiveness at sea by referring to the importance of ensuring freedom and security of navigation and abiding by international law.
Japan and China remain at odds over the sovereignty of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls Diaoyu, in the East China Sea. Tensions worsened after Japan effectively nationalized the uninhabited islets in September 2012. Since then, Chinese vessels have intruded in Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus.
Beijing also has overlapping territorial rows in the South China Sea with Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations with which Japan has been strengthening maritime cooperation. Tokyo will provide 10 coast guard patrol ships to Manila to help counter China.
Also, much to the dismay of Beijing, Abe has made use of his ASEAN trips as avenues to explain his nation’s security policy of promoting what he calls “proactive pacifism” to contribute to global peace and stability.
“Our path as a pacifist nation remains unchanged,” he said, apparently to allay concerns that may have arisen as his government pushes to exercise Japan’s right to collective self-defense, which is banned under the current interpretation of the Constitution.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a recent press conference in Tokyo that Japan’s push for this right is gaining the consent and support of ASEAN countries and other members of the global community.
With Abe completing his visits to all ASEAN countries just weeks ahead of the Dec. 13-15 special Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo marking the 40th anniversary of their diplomatic ties, Japan is keen to make a mark on this occasion.
“I would like to map out a new vision” for Japan-ASEAN, Abe said.
But how far Japan can take its diplomacy with ASEAN to higher ground remains uncertain as it faces a number of other tasks — finding a breakthrough to resume summits with China, mending ties with South Korea and ironing out certain political issues with the United States, Japan’s key ally.
Sophia University’s Nakano said that Tokyo’s urgent need is to fix its ties with China and South Korea, another East Asian neighbor with which it has a territorial row, and also with the United States.