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regional perspective

Asean and Japan find new common ground

The 1,512-word joint statement released by the Asean and Japanese leaders following their meeting last week in Tokyo said it all. Only the time-tested four-decade-old friendship could forge an encompassing declaration of a common vision of Asean and Japan and the roles they wish to play to ensure peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

The joint statement highlighted several key regional and global challenges such as regional architecture, maritime security cooperation, freedom and safety issues, the Korean Peninsula and global economic conditions. Upon closer scrutiny, one could see the alignment of threat perceptions and a strategic culture between Asean and Japan.

Three important points in the document must be discerned as they mark a new vitality in Asean-Japan cooperation in the 21st century. The first is the Asean-Japan position on free and safe maritime navigation and aviation, followed by the pledges to promote maritime security cooperation. Lastly is Asean's recognition of Japan's new security platform, officially known as "Proactive Contribu-tion to Peace", and its rationale.

The Asean leaders performed a Houdini act at the summit against a backdrop of a tense Japan-China rivalry. They stayed on their toes, maintaining Asean centrality, without upsetting the existing delicate balance of long-established ties with their two most important dialogue partners. Although Asean does not choose sides, the grouping has to walk a high-wire with a long and flexible balancing pole dipping from one side to another to keep itself standing and moving.

On one hand, they were respectful of Japan's importance and long-standing contribution to the region's wellbeing long before Asean became a grouping of 10 members. Across four decades, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on economic and human resource development projects that united old foes and built new partnerships. Anything short of expressing deep gratitude from Asean would be unimaginable.

On the other hand, the Asean leaders cannot and will not cross China by overtly favouring Japan's diplomatic agenda - even though some Asean members have strongly advocated such an approach. Since the new Chinese administration under President Xi Jinping came to power in March, China has been pro-active in promoting multifaceted cooperation with Asean with a long and impressive list of development programmes and financial support.

Within this new strategic environment, Asean has to use its assets - bargaining power, resources and wisdom - to keep the two Asian giants from turning against the grouping as a whole. Asean can still play off both powers, as they have not pushed Asean too hard. Asean's perception of Japan as a pacifist nation remains pivotal.

Ahead of the summit, Tokyo hoped Asean would go for a stronger text addressing China's recent declaration of an air defence zone. Japan, along with South Korea and the US, rejected such action. But after rounds of consultation, Asean and Japan agreed on a general text to enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of over-flights and civil aviation safety under a framework of international laws, including the 1982 UNCLOS. This is significant, as previously Asean did not have any common position on the freedom of over-flights. It served indirectly as a preemptive move out of fear of similar action elsewhere.

Furthermore, the document also mentioned the process of negotiating a code of conduct in the South China Sea between Asean and China. It signifies the linkage of maritime security cooperation in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia.

Notably, South Korea, which has an overlapping claim over Dokdo/Takeshima Island with Japan, has never approached Asean this way regarding the South China Sea dispute. In the past two decades, South Korea, a key US ally, has developed close economic ties and people-to-people contact with China. Seoul does not have a strategic vision beyond the Korean Peninsula.

Finally, the attitude of Asean towards Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's security policy is essential, as it will set forth the future discourse on this sensitive issue. Japan's current effort to increase national defence capacity and upgrade military hardware has been debated worldwide, especially the overall implications regionally and globally.

Unfortunately, the discussion inside Asean so far has been quite narrow, limited mainly to the context of managing the rise of China in the region. In this connection, Japan, the US and other major powers such as India and the EU have been mentioned as playing balancing roles.

Finally, the joint statement's last sentence is the most revealing. It states that the Asean leaders "looked forward" to Japan's efforts in contributing constructively to peace, stability and development in the region." This is the first time the Asean leaders have used an anticipatory gesture towards such an important policy. In more ways than one, it is a recognition of Japan's new endeavour to reposition itself.

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