What explains Southeast Asia’s trust in Japan?

Japan has consistently come up tops in a local research institute’s survey question on trust among ASEAN’s major dialogue partners. This is despite the history of Japan’s relations with countries in the region. But will the status quo remain unchanged? As Japan and ASEAN gear up to mark 50 years of friendship and cooperation next year, how will Japan work to maintain a strong relationship with the region amid growing US-China tensions?
People wearing face masks walk at Shibuya district in Tokyo, Japan, on 19 January 2022. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP)
People wearing face masks walk at Shibuya district in Tokyo, Japan, on 19 January 2022. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP)

In the 2022 State of Southeast Asia survey report released by the ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC) at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Japan once again pipped the US, China and the European Union (EU) to the post as the most trusted partner for Southeast Asia. Though the percentage points significantly fell from the previous year (68.2% to 54.2%), this achievement, nevertheless, stands out considering Japan’s historical past with the region. 

Moreover, Japan has experienced a major transformation in its security policy since the onset of the post-Cold War period. This has resulted in the more proactive use of its military (known as the Self-Defense Forces (SDF)) as not only a tool of security policy but also, in cooperation with its ally, the US, and regional partners, as a source of stability in the region. This transformation has occurred along with the easing of the traditional social and legal constraints that had previously limited Japan’s strategic contribution to regional and global affairs. 

What explains Southeast Asia’s trust in Japan? The answer lies in the Japanese government’s long-term investment in cultivating a relationship with Southeast Asia focusing on economic growth and development, regional stability and maintaining a rules-based order. This has been achieved through a non-assertive approach, maintaining active and regular dialogue and consultation with all Southeast Asian states and preserving a robust US-Japan alliance.

Building Japan-ASEAN relations

The turning point for Japan-Southeast Asia relations came with the announcement of the Fukuda Doctrine in 1977. Named after Japan’s Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, the doctrine laid the foundation for a stable bilateral relationship grounded in equality and regular “heart-to-heart” dialogue. Both parties have since reinforced these principles to form a complex, deep and multi-faceted partnership.

People cross a street in Tokyo's Ginza area in Japan, on 19 March 2022. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
People cross a street in Tokyo's Ginza area in Japan, on 19 March 2022. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

A key development was Japan’s early support of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its related multilateral order, which resulted in Japan establishing informal dialogue relations with ASEAN in 1973 and becoming one of its earliest dialogue partners in 1977.

Through its support for ASEAN, Japan-Southeast Asia developed strong relationships mainly in political and economic dimensions, but with limited focus on security. Tokyo has been a staunch supporter of ASEAN’s leadership and centrality, as well as its normative framework (consensus-building, non-intervention, informality and territorial integrity) in governing the region’s multilateral process.

The Japan-ASEAN relationship was upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2003 with both parties recognising the importance of their partnership for regional peace, stability and prosperity and developing an East Asian Community. In 2004, Japan acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). 

Japan adopted a role of shaping the regional order, namely to counter China’s initiatives targeted at ASEAN-led multilateralism.

Non-assertive approach valued 

The severe intensification of US-China competition since 2010 together with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises questions related to the region’s stability and the sustainability of US leadership in global affairs. Japan’s response, up to this point, has been to support the preservation of the status quo defined by US leadership and liberal internationalism; and Southeast Asia is a critical component in this response. 

Japan raised the strategic importance of Southeast Asia in its foreign policy strategy. This was especially visible when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in 2012. Not only did he choose to visit Southeast Asia for his first overseas trip, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit all ten ASEAN states in the first year of his term (2012-2013). These visits set the momentum of the gradual strengthening of Japan-Southeast Asia relations in multiple economic, political and security areas through non-assertive measures to maintain the status quo. 

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking at the 21st ASEAN-Japan Summit on 14 November 2018. (SPH Media)
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking at the 21st ASEAN-Japan Summit on 14 November 2018. (SPH Media)

Japan adopted a role of shaping the regional order, namely to counter China’s initiatives targeted at ASEAN-led multilateralism. It reinforced its support for ASEAN-led multilateral order for the East Asian and Indo-Pacific regions through the proactive implementation of initiatives and policies. These policies focused on promoting open regionalism as the defining feature of ASEAN-led multilateralism to counter China’s narrow conception of “East Asia” that included ASEAN and the Plus Three countries (China, Japan and South Korea); and showing continued unreserved support for both ASEAN centrality and ASEAN’s normative framework. 

Tokyo relied on a non-assertive approach towards ASEAN that was based on regular consultation at both the bilateral and multilateral levels and avoided pushing its own policy stance but working with Southeast Asian preferences.

Complementing institution-building, the Japanese government augmented its security engagement with Southeast Asia. This was targeted at maintaining stability in the maritime space through strengthening capacity, capabilities and maritime domain awareness of Southeast Asian states. Japan formed strategic partnerships with a range of Southeast Asian states such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, which involved the strengthening of bilateral defence cooperation through military exchanges, defence dialogues, military exercises (including in the South China Sea) and port calls at Southeast Asia ports by Japanese military vessels. 

With a break from the past, Japan provided security hardware, such as patrol boats and military equipment to Southeast Asian/ASEAN states and used its Japan Coast Guard to train its regional counterparts mainly to upgrade their capabilities in enforcing international law in the maritime space. Despite the strategic turn in the bilateral relationship, Tokyo relied on a non-assertive approach towards ASEAN that was based on regular consultation at both the bilateral and multilateral levels and avoided pushing its own policy stance but working with Southeast Asian preferences.

A crucial alternative despite emerging challenges

With the US and China engaged in regional competitive policies, Japan has possibly emerged as a critical alternative for Southeast Asia in maintaining regional stability. This is achieved through a multi-faceted strategy involving not only military and political initiatives, as discussed above, but also economic (investments, trade, infrastructure development and protection of global supply chains), social (human resources, health care, including the Covid-19 relief measures, and natural disaster response and prevention measures), and technological (digitalisation and cybersecurity) measures. 

Other than its positive contribution to regional stability, Japan’s alternative role becomes more palatable to Southeast Asia for its, perhaps limited, strategic variance in its approach to addressing the China threat to the status quo order and its related principles from the US. Unlike Washington’s containment approach, Tokyo has adopted a more balanced foreign policy towards its neighbour that underscores the value of economic interdependence and regular political dialogue at the highest levels. This is also clearly visible in the manner that both countries have framed their respective Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concepts. While the US has in not so many words couched its Indo-Pacific strategy and thinking of a FOIP as a means to address the China challenge, Japan has maintained that its FOIP is a vision or concept designed to promote peace and security, interconnectivity and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific.

Japan’s economic and military power is increasingly viewed as a threat (from 1.8% to 7.2%)... Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision/concept has also caused discord between the two parties...

This handout picture taken and released by Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office via Jiji Press on 27 October 2021 shows Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, Japan. (Handout/Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office via Jiji Press/AFP)
This handout picture taken and released by Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office via Jiji Press on 27 October 2021 shows Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, Japan. (Handout/Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office via Jiji Press/AFP)

Despite the positive trajectory, Japan-Southeast Asia relations are faced with multiple challenges. While the survey confirmed Japan as the most trusted partner for Southeast Asia, it also showed that among those who responded that they had little or no confidence in Japan to do the right thing, Japan’s economic and military power is increasingly viewed as a threat (from 1.8% to 7.2%). Though the number is still low, strategic planners in Tokyo should take note of this and devise measures to counter this sense of threat early on. 

Japan’s FOIP vision/concept has also caused discord between the two parties, namely targeted at the strategic implications of excluding China in the Indo-Pacific framework. To placate doubts expressed by the ASEAN capitals, Tokyo has clarified that the ASEAN-led multilateral order complements the Japan-led FOIP vision; noted that ASEAN remains a “hub” or “intersection” for the Indo-Pacific; and expressed strong support and underscored the commonalities between ASEAN’s own ASEAN Outlook of the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) vision and Japan’s FOIP. Nevertheless, differences over FOIP still linger.

As Japan and ASEAN prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan friendship and cooperation in 2023, both are faced with severe structural challenges that have the potential to reorder the region and disrupt stability. The way to cope with these challenges is to double down in efforts that have brought prosperity, development and stability in the past and develop a forward-looking relationship based on shared interests and mutual respect.

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