Japan must pursue a strategic pivot to Asia

by Yoichi Funabashi

The past year has witnessed a dramatic change in the attitude of ASEAN member states toward China. The declaration issued during the leaders’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last November in Manila, which emphasized the need for “non-militarization and self-restraint” regarding China’s pursuit of military bases in the South China Sea through construction of artificial islands, made the change in ASEAN’s stance abundantly clear. What set this statement apart from previous declarations on the issue was the absence of a single word with regard to China’s actions: “concern.”

Ever since the May 2014 ASEAN chairman’s statement noted “serious concern” regarding China’s oil drilling in waters near the Paracel Islands, statements issued by ASEAN have consistently made reference to the “continued concern” or “shared concern” of its member states over China’s actions.

However, the statement issued at the April 2017 leaders’ summit was more subdued, and simply “took note of concerns expressed by some leaders.” Cambodia’s strong opposition to the use of the word “concern” in the statement prompted this change in wording. Furthermore, private meetings held during the meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers last August failed to yield a consensus on whether or not a code of conduct for activity in the South China Sea should be legally binding. While Malaysia and Vietnam pushed to give the code of conduct legal weight, their efforts were opposed by the Philippines. Ultimately, the statement issued by the foreign ministers refrained from specifying the legal weight of the code of conduct.

Subsequently, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called his foreign minister and scolded him for making statements at the meeting that could be seen as anti-China. Apparently, representatives of both Cambodia and Laos had reported back on these private discussions to the Chinese government, which in turn lodged a complaint with the Malaysian prime minister. All of this was recently disclosed to me by a well-informed attendee of the Manila summit.

My source went on to note: “These days China is even interfering in ASEAN personnel matters, telling ASEAN member states that certain people are undesirable because of their anti-Chinese views.”

ASEAN countries are finding themselves under growing scrutiny by China.

Meanwhile, the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump recently launched a new approach to Asia, known as the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The position of ASEAN within this broader strategy of the United States remains unclear. Moreover, the strategy emphasizes military aspects at the expense of economic lure for ASEAN countries.

As concern over China and distrust of the U.S. intersect, ASEAN states now harbor unprecedentedly high expectations of Japan. At the same time, the businessmen and other well-informed people I met with in Manila, Bangkok and Hanoi shared the following advice: 1) ASEAN countries do not want to be marked as either pro-Chinese or pro-American; 2) Similarly, they do not want to be subjected to a loyalty test that forces them to choose between China and Japan; 3) ASEAN countries would like to see Sino-Japanese relations stabilize. If possible, they would like China and Japan to keep their economic and political relations separate; 4) They want Japanese participation in Chinese initiatives like the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) to act as an internal check on Chinese power; 5) Japan should keep the U.S. involved in Asia.

It is time for Japan to review its Asia policies once again. Specifically, Japan must pivot to Asia by seizing the frontier opportunities of the ASEAN market with a combined population of 600 million.

Japan has already made several exploratory attempts at pivoting to Asia in the postwar period. Anti-Japanese demonstrations broke out in response to state visits to Thailand and Indonesia by Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in 1974, signifying a revolt against the rapid advance of Japanese businesses into Asia on the strength of Japan’s growth into the world’s second-largest economic power. Later, the administration of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda launched a program of “heart-to-heart” diplomacy in Asia, in part as a reflection and recalibration of Japan’s approach to the region.

Next came a move toward Asian regionalism prompted by the yen’s steep appreciation following the 1995 Plaza Accord and the subsequent end of the Cold War. Japan played a major role in the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum. That was followed by the Japan-driven initiative in 1997 and 1998 to establish an Asian Monetary Fund (AMF) at the time of the Asian financial crisis.

And now there is Japan’s new pivot to Asia against the background of China’s OBOR offensive and the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Of these initiatives, Japan’s AMF vision was foiled by the U.S. (and China). The U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton viewed Japan’s AMF initiative as a challenge to the International Monetary Fund regime and American dominance of the international financial system. By contrast, the Trump administration has so far made no attempt to thwart the TPP 11. In fact, Trump himself hinted at interest in rejoining the pact after the 11 members agreed, under the leadership of Japan, to sign a revised agreement in March in Chile.

Whether Japan will prove capable of developing an Asia policy that deepens its ties with ASEAN members hinges on whether it can convince the U.S. to remain involved in Asia and return to the TPP framework. Additionally, Japan must encourage the integration of Asian partners who have shown interest in joining the TPP, specifically the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.

Japan must secure its relationships with the rest of Asia. On occasion, it must cooperate with China. And it must bring the U.S. back to the region. Now is the time for Japan to develop such a strategic pivot to Asia.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and was editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.