Japan-ASEAN Cooperation: A Central Element of East Asia’s Regional Architecture


Japan’s ties with ASEAN over the past 40-plus years have been through various changes and have been affected by the major growth of China’s presence in the region. But Japan continues to be a key partner for the association and its members. Formerly focused on economic affairs, Japan-ASEAN cooperation now extends to the political and security spheres as well.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967. Dialogue between ASEAN and Japan commenced in the early 1970s, and the ties between the two now have a history of over 40 years. Over the course of this period, the Japan-ASEAN relationship has undergone various changes, reflecting the shifting times and developments in the broader East Asian and Asia-Pacific regional architectures.

Deepening of Ties After the Cold War

In a speech delivered in Manila in 1977, Japan’s Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo set forth what subsequently came to be called the Fukuda Doctrine, declaring that Japan would (1) forge ties with ASEAN based on “heart to heart” understanding, (2) never again become a military power, and (3) be an equal partner with ASEAN and serve as a bridge between ASEAN and the Indochinese countries. The Japanese government acutely felt the need to enunciate this policy stance in order to rebuild Japan’s ties with the countries of Southeast Asia in the face of an outpouring of anti-Japanese sentiment in the region provoked by the sharp rise in Japan’s economic presence and by its provision of official development assistance in support of authoritarian regimes. We should note that even at this point in time, more than 30 years after the end of World War II, Japan still needed to clear away fears that it would embark once again on the path of militarism. This Fukuda Doctrine contributed greatly to the subsequent improvement of Japan’s relations with ASEAN.

In the 1990s, reflecting the shift in the regional environment following the Cold War, four countries that had previously been in confrontation with ASEAN—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam—joined the association, bringing its membership to 10. This decade also brought the start of substantive moves toward regional economic integration, including the launch of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) at the fourth ASEAN Summit in 1992. In addition, ASEAN pursued a strategy of aiming to play a central role in building broad regional arrangements extending beyond its own area, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) established in 1994 and the extension of its dialogue partnerships with Asia-Pacific powers like Japan and the United States to encompass other countries, such as China, India, Russia, and South Korea.

Cooperation between Japan and the changing ASEAN of the 1990s had a major impact on regional politics during this decade. For example, this cooperation contributed greatly to the establishment of the ARF. Also, Japan undertook initiatives to help the ASEAN countries to achieve greater prosperity and to close the “ASEAN divide” between the original members and the less-developed newer members.

In 1992, for example, the AEM-METI forum was established, bringing together the ASEAN economic ministers and Japan’s minister of economy, trade, and industry. In 1998 came the launch of the AEM-METI Economic and Industrial Cooperation Committee to give concrete shape to the cooperative measures agreed upon at the ministerial level. And following the outbreak of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Japan implemented the Miyazawa Initiative, under which it provided some $30 billion in financial support for Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea. This served as the basis for the subsequent Chiang Mai Initiative, which created East Asia’s first multilateral currency swap mechanism linking the countries of ASEAN with China, Japan, and South Korea.

Japan and China Vie for Influence

With the start of the 2000s came the emergence of rivalry between Japan and other countries, China in particular, in the development of relations with ASEAN. A symbolic move in this connection was seen in November 2001, when China took the lead in agreeing with ASEAN to establish a free trade agreement within 10 years. Japan responded with a proposal to work in tandem with ASEAN toward the building of a regional community in East Asia. This concept was advanced by Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō in a speech he delivered during a trip to Southeast Asia in January 2002, in which he also set forth Japan’s posture of readiness to promote closer economic cooperation with ASEAN.

Both Japan and China continued thereafter to compete visibly in strengthening ties with ASEAN by negotiating free trade agreements and economic partnership pacts and becoming parties to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. When the East Asia Summit was inaugurated in 2005, Japan and China took conflicting positions regarding the scope of membership in the new forum. The rivalry also manifested itself with regard to the future direction for regional architecture centering on ASEAN, with Japan backing the establishment of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership for East Asia and China favoring an East Asia Free Trade Agreement.

Meanwhile, ASEAN itself heightened its international profile to a certain degree by sitting down at the same table as China, Japan, and other major countries from outside the region and providing forums for the exchange of opinions. The members of the association have come up with the concept of “ASEAN centrality” in the broader regional architecture.

During the decade of the 2000s, ASEAN’s strengthening of its partnerships with China and other countries resulted in a relative decline in the prominence of its ties with Japan. Even so, Japan’s cooperation with and support for ASEAN, particularly in the economic sphere, continued to strengthen. For example, in 2006 Japan provided funding for the establishment of the Japan-ASEAN Integrated Fund in support of efforts to close the development gaps within the region. The closing of these gaps was a key issue in connection with the creation of an ASEAN Community, a goal adopted at the 2003 ASEAN Summit.

Strengthening Political-Security Cooperation

As the 2000s drew to a close, with the emergence of a shift in the US-China power balance in East Asia, increasing emphasis came to be placed on the political and security-related aspects of the Japan-ASEAN partnership in addition to the ongoing cooperation in the economic sphere. This trend became more pronounced in the 2010s and continues to the present.

The shift can be seen by comparing the Tokyo Declaration adopted at a special Japan-ASEAN summit in December 2003 with the Bali Declaration adopted at the Japan-ASEAN summit in November 2011.

In the 2003 Tokyo Declaration the focus was on cooperation in the economic sphere, including the promotion of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership and of monetary and financial cooperation, priority for ASEAN members in Japan’s development assistance programs, and Japanese support for the Initiative for ASEAN Integration.

Eight years later, in the 2011 Bali Declaration, the tone was different. This document set forth five strategies for future Japan-ASEAN cooperation, and the first of the five was “strengthening political-security cooperation in the region.” More specifically, the document referred to such matters as enhanced cooperation based on international law and the principles and spirit of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia; cooperation on maritime security and safety in accordance with the principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, such as freedom and safety of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and peaceful settlement of disputes; and the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

By comparison with the Tokyo Declaration, the Bali Declaration placed political-security matters in a much more important position as an element of Japan-ASEAN cooperation. And this same sort of shift was also seen in the Vision Statement on ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation adopted at the December 2013 summit commemorating 40 years of Japan-ASEAN relations.

The United States and China: A Difficult Balancing Act for ASEAN Members

The biggest reason for the increased emphasis by Japan and ASEAN on political-security cooperation is the shift in the regional balance of power resulting from China’s rise, accompanied by concerns about the possible destabilization of the regional security environment.

Particularly since President Xi Jinping took the helm, China has clearly shown its intention of expanding its influence over other countries in the region by pursuing win-win international relations through such moves as establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and promotion of its Belt and Road Initiative, but it has given no sign of flexibility on matters relating to sovereignty.

Also, China, which is now rigorously repressing domestic advocates of democracy, is building closer ties with the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has come under international criticism for his administration’s ruthless war on drugs, and with Thailand, where the military has held the reins since a coup d’état in 2014. These developments are a cause for concern.

The United States has implemented “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea twice since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January this year, but the shape of the new administration’s Asia policies is still highly unclear. In the light of China’s above-noted rapprochement with certain ASEAN members, the Trump administration’s lack of interest in issues concerning human rights and democracy seems like a possible source of danger.

Meanwhile, though Japan may attempt to join hands with ASEAN in countering China’s strong-arm approach in the South China Sea, it is hard to see how far this approach can be implemented in practice. For one thing, Japan lacks the power to fill the vacuum left by the United States. And the postures of individual ASEAN members vary greatly with respect to foreign policy and security; also, the economic benefits of stronger ties with China are an important factor for many of them.

When it comes to maritime security, which is the most important security-related concern for Japan and ASEAN members, practical cooperation at least in the near future will probably be conducted not at the Japan-ASEAN level but at the bilateral level, involving Japanese support for the coast guards of individual ASEAN members, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and transfers of defense equipment.

Enhanced Cooperation in Building a Regional Architecture

Japan-ASEAN cooperation continues to be important for the sake of peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia, and though its weight may have declined in relative terms, it is also still a significant element in the regional architecture of East Asia as a whole. Japan must enhance its cooperation aimed at promoting the further development of the ASEAN community, centering on the three spheres of political-security affairs, economic matters, and social and cultural activities.

Japan’s active involvement in infrastructure building will be a crucial element in the strengthening of ties with ASEAN. Efforts to fight the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia will be another area for cooperation. Meanwhile, ignoring the problems in the current situation regarding human rights and democracy that are seen in certain ASEAN members will have negative implications both for Japan-ASEAN ties and for the region as a whole.

Particularly in a difficult period like the present, it is essential to conduct cooperation based on a clear long-term vision of the sort of region that the countries involved hope to create. The true worth of the Japan-ASEAN relationship is now being tested.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 7, 2017. Banner photo: Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Sekō Hiroshige [center] joins hands with the ASEAN economic ministers at a meeting in Osaka on April 8, 2017. Such AEM-METI meetings have been a regular part of Japan-ASEAN dialogue since 1992. © Jiji.)