WASHINGTON – From Saturday to Monday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono was on a brief Southeast Asian tour to both Brunei and Singapore. Beyond the bilateral and regional issues Kono touched on during both legs of his visit, it was also a demonstration of the emphasis Japan is placing on Southeast Asia as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations within the broader context of its own Indo-Pacific strategy.
Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy
Despite the current focus around U.S. President Donald Trump’s articulation of an Indo-Pacific strategy, the concept is not new or unique to the United States. The concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy is also not new in the Japanese context, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe being a staunch advocate of it dating back to his previous tenure as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.
The most recent articulation of the vision during Abe’s current tenure broadly centers around enhancing connectivity from Asia to Africa to promote greater stability and prosperity across these regions through a variety of means, including improving the security situation in these regions, promoting greater development, and supporting the advancement of rule of law and building capacity in related fields.
Apart from larger states like the U.S. and India, the smaller countries of Southeast Asia in general as well as ASEAN play an important role in the context of Japan’s vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Geopolitically, Southeast Asia is where several aspects of the vision Japan is advancing will be tested — whether standards around infrastructure projects or the advancement of the rule of law in the maritime domain with the South China Sea disputes — all amid the involvement of other major powers, including China and the U.S.
Singapore and Brunei
Singapore and Brunei are also important countries within the context of this strategy in their own right, albeit in different senses. Singapore is a highly capable and active contributor to regional security and prosperity, both on its own as well as in concert with partners like the U.S. and Japan. A case in point is the Japan-Singapore Partnership Program for the 21st Century — a jointly run training program for developing countries.
Brunei is much less active comparatively speaking but is nonetheless strategically significant as a country, whether in terms of its search for economic diversification in the context of ongoing reform, which also saw it become a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Singapore and Japan, or its role as a quiet claimant in the South China Sea.
Both countries are also important within ASEAN, especially in the current context. Singapore holds the annually rotating ASEAN chairmanship for 2018, which puts it at the center of the advancement of several regional initiatives this year. Brunei, meanwhile, has served as the coordinator for ASEAN-Japan relations, which are in their 45th year, with several activities and developments planned around that as well.
So it was no surprise that Kono chose to visit these two countries this month. Of course, part of the focus of the visit was around specific bilateral issues and regional areas of concern like North Korea as well as developments related to the 45th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan dialogue relations this year. But the theme of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy unsurprisingly featured as well. Ahead of the trip, the Foreign Ministry said Kono’s visit was a demonstration of how it was important to cooperate with Brunei and Singapore “in the framework to materialize the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy based on the rule of law, as both these countries attach importance to the maritime order.”
True to that statement, both legs of Kono’s visit saw a focus on elements of that Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. In Brunei, the focus was partly around Japan’s role in helping the country in its quest for economic diversification in the context of reform, which has significance beyond the domestic realm as it has also impacted Brunei’s dealings with China as well. In his consultations with Brunei officials, the Foreign Ministry said Kono did reinforce the importance of Brunei and Southeast Asia within the context of Japan’s broader Indo-Pacific vision.
But the most significant development was Kono’s delivery of remarks on board the Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Yamagiri at Muara Commercial Port, which was one of three vessels that had docked there for a goodwill visit.
The South China Sea
During his address there, Kono said Japan was promoting its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy “under the conviction that ensuring that this ocean, which we see before our eyes, is free and open is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity not only for Japan but for the world.” The significance of those remarks was not lost on regional observers considering that Brunei is a claimant, albeit a quiet one, in the context of the South China Sea disputes.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, during his discussions with Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, apart from areas for expansion in bilateral cooperation (like air connectivity, innovation and digital technology), there was also discussion about broadening ASEAN-Japan ties under Singapore’s chairmanship this year, as well as enhancing the Japan-Singapore Partnership Program for the 21st Century, which both sides had agreed to advance last year during its 20th anniversary.
In addition, mirroring the maritime focus we had seen in Brunei, Singapore’s foreign ministry also said that Kono had visited the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, including the Port Operations Control Center. The ministry said Kono was briefed on ongoing bilateral maritime cooperation, though no further specifics were provided.
It is still early days in terms of Japan’s rolling out of its Indo-Pacific strategy, particularly in Southeast Asia, where there are mixed feelings in different countries about what the strategy is and how it will play out in terms of broader trends, be it links with ideas like the so-called Quad — grouping Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. — as well as China’s own growing role in the region. But Kono’s visit demonstrated Japan’s recognition of both that ambivalence as well as the significance of the smaller countries of Southeast Asia in this bigger strategy.
Prashanth Parameswaran is senior editor at The Diplomat based in Washington, where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia, Asian security affairs and U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region. © 2018, The Diplomat; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency,