Japan and ASEAN: The Next 50 Years

Japan and ASEAN: Partners for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific in an Era of Uncertainty

Politics Economy

The 50-year-old friendship between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is evolving in response to today’s challenging security environment. Political scientist Ōba Mie calls for closer and more wide-ranging cooperation to navigate the rough waters ahead.

This year Japan celebrates a half-century of friendship and cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam). In conjunction with this milestone, experts inside and outside of the government have been exploring future directions for the Japan-ASEAN partnership. The Expert Panel for the 50th Year of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation, which I had the privilege to chair, submitted its final report to the government in February 2023 after several months of deliberation. This was followed by two interagency conferences and a series of agency-specific events and programs dedicated to the same theme.

In December, Japan is scheduled to host a special commemorative Japan-ASEAN summit. In his policy speech to the Diet on October 23, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio pledged to use that opportunity to unveil “a new vision for another 50 years of cooperation as a driving force in the Indo-Pacific, a center of growth.”

Japan has changed much in the past 50 years, as have ASEAN’s member states. The environment in which we find ourselves is radically different as well. With what common purpose should Japan and ASEAN strengthen their partnership going forward?

Supporting ASEAN Unity

In recent years, Japan has come to view its relationship with ASEAN and its member states as integral to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative spearheaded by the Japanese government.

While strengthening cooperation with ASEAN as a single entity, as through support for the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund and for various ASEAN projects, Japan has also emphasized bilateral cooperation with ASEAN’s individual member states. We have assisted with infrastructure development in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, for example. We have also helped countries like the Philippines and Vietnam bolster their maritime law enforcement capabilities. In addition, we are involved in a number of bilateral projects aimed at developing systems and human resources for counter-terrorism, internal security, and emergency management. Both of these strategies—that is, support for individual ASEAN countries and cooperation with the organization as a whole—serve to strengthen our ties with the region, and together they have a synergistic effect.

Japan’s bilateral cooperation with ASEAN countries is entirely consistent with its support for ASEAN unity and centrality. From the standpoint of a country like China, which is locked in disputes with certain Southeast Asian countries over territorial claims in the South China Sea, it would be disadvantageous for the ASEAN countries to rally together and deal with such issues as a single entity. For this reason, countries like China seem to think it in their own best interests to approach the ASEAN member states individually in hopes of sowing division. Japan, which has no serious dispute with any Southeast Asian country, respects the centrality and unity of ASEAN. Indeed, joint efforts to tackle the challenges I discuss below can only benefit from the trend toward ASEAN unity and centrality.

Advances in Security Cooperation

All of ASEAN’s members have undergone substantial development in the past few decades. But the level of economic development varies greatly from nation to nation, and there is considerable social and economic inequality within each country. With such disparities in mind, Japan continues to target traditional Official Development Assistance to certain countries and areas of need.

At the same time, there are important challenges facing Japan and Southeast Asia that lie outside the framework of ODA. Chief among these is the need to strengthen our partnership to promote the development of a stable and salutary regional order in this era of transition. To this end, Japan and ASEAN have been cooperating more actively on security and defense.

In 2016, at the second Japan-ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting, (then) Japanese Defense Minister Inada Tomomi announced the Vientiane Vision for enhanced defense cooperation between Japan and the ASEAN countries. In the Vientiane Vision 2.0, released in 2019, the government clarified the relevance of such cooperation to the broader FOIP initiative and articulated three guiding principles.

To be sure, Japan has long cooperated with efforts to meet nontraditional security threats, as through participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum (a platform for security dialogue and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (which includes ASEAN’s eight dialogue partners). Since the beginning of this century, it has also provided aid for antipiracy measures, as well as humanitarian assistance and emergency relief in conflict-torn areas.

However, with the deterioration of the regional security environment since around 2010, maritime security has come to occupy a more and more prominent place in Japan’s assistance to the region. Much of this cooperation has focused on actively boosting the capacity of countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to enforce the law of the sea. Japan has also concluded agreements on the transfer of defense equipment and technology with the Philippines (2016), Malaysia (2018), Vietnam (2020), Indonesia (2021), and Thailand (2022). In addition, it has instituted bilateral foreign and defense ministerial (2+2) meetings with Indonesia and the Philippines.

Highlighting Energy and the Environment

Of course, economic cooperation is an important aspect of the relationship as well. Today, however, the expansion of trade and investment is largely in the hands of the private sector. Unlike China’s state-owned enterprises, Japanese businesses are not easily employed as tools of government policy. But the ASEAN countries are eager for more direct investment from Japan, and business opportunities abound in the region.

Japan and ASEAN share an interest in building supply-chain resilience and promoting sustainable development. Our task is to build the environment for private-sector business activity and innovation oriented to those goals. Economic cooperation between Japan and ASEAN in the coming years is likely to focus on the key areas of environmental solutions, energy, and digital transformation.

The Asia-Japan Investing for the Future Initiative (AJIF) and the Asia Energy Transition Initiative (AETI), announced by the Japanese government in 2022, identify three basic common goals for Japan-ASEAN economic cooperation: (1) enhancing Southeast Asia’s appeal as a global supply-chain hub, (2) fostering innovation geared to sustainability and mitigation of social problems, and (3) accelerating the transition to renewable energy.

In August 2023, an expert panel under the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry submitted the ASEAN-Japan Economic Co-Creation Vision, drawn up in consultation with major industry stakeholders. It calls for joint action directed toward the four goals of sustainability, cross-border open innovation, enhanced cyber and physical connectivity, and the development of an ecosystem for the co-creation of vibrant human capital. Progress in each area will ultimately hinge on how proactively Japanese and Southeast Asian businesses pursue “co-creation.”

Protecting the Free Trade System

With strategic competition between the United States and China heating up, economic security concerns have the potential to impact the region’s trade and investment. Where sensitive and critical technologies are concerned, decoupling may be unavoidable, but many in Southeast Asia view the trend with alarm.

Some have suggested, to the contrary, that ASEAN stands to gain as China responds by relocating production bases to Southeast Asia. To be sure, there may be some benefit to the region in the short term, but in the long run, destabilization of the business environment will have a negative impact throughout East Asia, including the ASEAN countries. Our most important task in this context is to uphold the global free-trade system centered on the World Trade Organization, while striving to optimize the Regional and Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an ASEAN-led trade agreement that encompasses Australia, China, and New Zealand as well as the ASEAN countries and Japan.

In the years ahead, the RCEP will play an increasingly important role in establishing the ground rules for international commerce across the Indo-Pacific. It is in the interests of both Japan and ASEAN to work together to strengthen the provisions of the RCEP so as to safeguard free and fair trade in the region.

Promoting Knowledge Exchange and Networking

The central message of the final report of the Expert Panel for the 50th Year of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation is that Japan and ASEAN should partner for the realization of a free, open, and just society and regional order by stepping up cooperation in the political, security, economic, and social spheres.

Another point stressed in the report is the need for trust building and intellectual exchange. Division and conflict are undermining the foundations of international society as we know it. If Japan and ASEAN are to work together to build a new society and provide the public goods needed for peace and prosperity under a new regional order, it is vital that we foster mutual understanding and trust. To this end, we must deepen and expand intellectual exchange among people of different age groups, including the young, in the political, governmental, business, and academic spheres, and foster networking at various levels.

Japan and the ASEAN countries may not always be on the same page. Doubtless there will be occasional disagreements among ASEAN countries as well. No group can be in perfect harmony and unanimity at all times. That said, the ASEAN countries have maintained a remarkable degree of unity for many years now. Moreover, to Japan, they are valued friends and partners, countries with whom we have no major political disagreements and with whom we have spent decades building stable relationships. A strong and truly equal partnership with the countries of Southeast Asia, built on a foundation of close communication, could be key to navigating the turbulent waters ahead.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (left) shakes hands with Indonesian president Joko Widodo at the ASEAN-Japan Summit, held in Jakarta on September 6 in conjunction with ASEAN Indonesia 2023. © Kyōdō.)

diplomacy ASEAN Indo-Pacific