Visit by Japanese premier bodes well for region
Japan's new leader makes Southeast Asia his first overseas trip, as his administration seeks to improve its long-standing presence here
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's choice for his first overseas trip has implications for the foreign-affairs policy of his administration. Thus, Abe's visit to Southeast Asian countries this week has demonstrated a priority of the new Japanese government. Tokyo is set to increase its presence in Southeast Asia.
From today, Abe will be visiting Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia as part of Japan's effort to strengthen ties with Asean countries and to fulfil the government's plan to re-energise its position in the region.
Fiscally, the dynamic Asean economies provide a massive potential market for Japanese goods and services, which could speed the process of Japan's recovery from a decade-long recession. Politically, Japan and Asean can work together to counter the weight of China's increasing clout in the region, which in many quarters is seen as a threat. Indeed, Japan has long been an active partner in Asean meetings.
Prior to Abe's visit, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso visited other Southeast Asian nations to, among other things, explain the new administration's policy shift towards East Asia.
In fact, Japan has played an instrumental role in promoting Asean integration, such as the establishment of the Miyazawa Plan after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and the Asean Regional Forum in the mid-1990s. However the domestic political situation in Japan, which has seen frequent changes of prime minister in the past few years, has affected the country's leadership role in the region.
Abe, however, has promised voters a more assertive role for Japan on the international stage. Japan is still struggling economically and falling behind in the regional context. It has lost its position as the world's second-largest economy to China, which has now risen to challenge the power of the United States. South Korea, meanwhile, has become a new economic giant and is seriously challenging Japan as a regional leader in innovation.
This Asean trip corresponds well to the Liberal Democratic Party's campaign promises during the recent Japanese election. The vibrant Asean markets can help shore up the demand for Japanese products. After all, Japan has long been the biggest investor in the region, especially in Thailand, where the "flying geese" model of hierarchical industrial development played an integral part in creating the Southeast Asian economic tigers from the mid-1970s on.
Over the past few years Japan has seemed to lose its foremost place in the region amid fast-changing challenges. However Abe's visit now marks Japan's intention to strengthen security cooperation with Asean countries at a time when maritime territorial disputes are re-emerging in East Asia. Japan is currently engaged in territorial disputes with China and Russia. Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China are locked in similar disputes in the South China Sea. The United States, under President Barack Obama, plans to increase its military presence in Asia.
Despite the long-standing relationship between our two countries, it is quite ironic that Abe's trip to Thailand will mark the first visit of a Japanese premier here since Junichiro Koizumi in 2001. But the true strength of the Thai-Japanese relationship lies in the goodwill between the two peoples. Thailand proved to be a true friend when Japan was hit by the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. And Japan repaid that goodwill through its emergency assistance and pledge that businesses would remain in Thailand after the flood crisis later the same year.
The visit of Abe, accompanied by a 100-strong business delegation and around 50 members of the press, will enhance the relationship at the official level. Abe is set to spend a full day in Bangkok. The discussions are likely to cover a number of issues including infrastructure projects and Japanese trade and investment in Thailand and the region.
Geopolitical and economic developments in Southeast Asia have been changing with the increased interest of the superpowers, the US and China, in the region. In addition, the advent of the Asean Economic Community in 2015 will provide more opportunities for East Asian cooperation. The Japanese "shift" towards Southeast Asia is inevitable and should be welcomed by all Asean members.