Will Japan seize its “ASEAN moment”?

Image: 外務省 / Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan/Flickr

At a time when Japanese officials are hardening their stance against China in the matter of Taiwanese independence, the country has been working hard to foster strong relations in Southeast Asia in an effort to balance Chinese assertiveness in the region. Case in point was the ASEAN-Japan cybersecurity drill that took place on 24 June with the objective to improve cooperation between Japan and the 10 ASEAN member states.

Even if the drill wasn’t necessarily heavy in substance, it certainly was in symbolic power. After all, Southeast Asian and ASEAN countries have become increasingly weary of growing Chinese influence, both in the cyber-sphere – where Beijing has been conducting ever more daring offensive cyber operations over the years – and in the physical world, with the Chinese military frequently entering disputed territories and violating national airspaces. Japan, on the other hand, has become an increasingly trusted partner.

Japan’s rising star in Southeast Asia

These changing regional tides were highlighted in the most recent edition of the State of Southeast Asia Survey Report, which revealed that most ASEAN countries are now seeing China more as an outright threat than a real partner: nearly 72% of respondents expressed concern about China’s “growing regional influence” while 53% saw a threat in its military power.

At the same time, as China has turned on its rhetoric about win-win cooperation of previous years to outright physical threats, attitudes towards Japan among ASEAN countries have skyrocketed. An opinion poll published in 2020 revealed that 92% of respondents across ASEAN thought Japan’s role in maintaining regional peace and stability was “very valuable” or “valuable”. 93% viewed their country’s relationship with Japan as “very friendly” or “somewhat friendly”. Both results were marked improvements over previous years during which the island state’s approval ratings ranged between 83% and 87%.

For Japan, the geopolitical significance of this invaluable: the strategic momentum is on Japan’s side and the time is ripe to seize the moment to help ASEAN develop in a direction that is highly welcoming of Japanese – and by extension American – interests for decades to come. This advantageous situation isn’t the result of coincidence. Under former Prime Minister Abe and now under Yoshihide Suga, Japan has worked successfully to cultivate ties with its Southeastern neighbours and convince them of the benefits of cooperating with a strong Japan-US alliance.

The fruits of deep engagement

Central to this diplomatic drive has been the secretary general of the National Security Secretariat (NSS), Shigeru Kitamura. A long-time key adviser to both Prime Ministers, Kitamura has been instrumental in signalling strategic resolve together with Washington, and engaging with Southeast Asia on a deeper level beyond mere security interests.

This has been particularly the case since 2018, at the height of tensions between Washington and Beijing. That year, Japanese companies began to expand their operations in countries like Vietnam and Thailand, thereby providing an economic alternative to being caught in the great power rivalry. Japan’s activity in Southeast Asia has had a distinct infrastructure focus as well, turning it quietly into the largest infrastructure investor in the region since at least 2014. According to estimates by Fitch Solutions, Japanese infrastructure projects are valued at $367 billion, much more compared to China’s $255 billion (as of 2019).

The role of trusted and seasoned officials like Kitamura in bringing about the current state of affairs in as complex a region as the Indo-Pacific necessitates their continued presence – especially as the Biden administration is still trying to get its grip on a difficult external environment. Rumours of Kitamura’s imminent departure from the post, therefore, are now injecting considerable uncertainty not only about Japan’s ability capitalise on its goodwill in ASEAN, but to effectively leverage the US-Japan alliance’s influence in the region as well.

So close and yet so far?

Securing a stable, pro-Japanese relationship with ASEAN in general, and the region’s largest economies – the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam – in particular must be Tokyo’s primary objective at this time. However, doing so credibly and successfully requires stable points of contact at the highest political level. That’s something that the departure of Kitamura would dangerously undermine, with the result that ASEAN diplomats would be forced to interact with a less experienced and trusted counterpart instead.

As such, Japan finds itself in a delicate situation right when securing an immensely important and era-defining strategic victory against its biggest systemic-regional rival is in grasp. With all the signs in Tokyo’s favour, the country must present a reliable front to well-disposed ASEAN members and continue its multi-level engagement. Otherwise, the land of the rising sun will find itself isolated in its own neighbourhood.