Japan's Human Security Role in Southeast Asia

By Er, Lam Peng | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Japan's Human Security Role in Southeast Asia


Er, Lam Peng, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Tokyo's traditional security role in post-Cold War Southeast Asia remains an indirect one: supporting Washington's regional presence through the US-Japan Alliance and providing military bases for US forces in Japan. That the US military is able to project its naval presence in the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf is, in part, thanks to the military facilities and financial subsidies provided by Japan.

Tokyo's role as a US ally to maintain the regional balance of power will remain important in the post-Cold War era against the backdrop of an unpredictable North Korea and a rising China which has generated ambivalence in the region. On the one hand, the phenomenal economic growth of the Chinese Mainland will act as a key engine of economic growth for both Southeast Asia and Japan and even help to further integrate the region economically; on the other hand, China's rising economic power will conceivably underpin greater Chinese political and military clout in the region.

To deflect regional concerns of a "China threat", Beijing sought to give the Southeast Asian countries a stake in the Mainland's rapid economic growth and offered a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to Southeast Asia in 2000 and 2001. To avoid being left behind by China, Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro responded to the Chinese FTA initiative and proposed a comprehensive economic partnership between Japan and Southeast Asia in January 2002. In the same speech, Koizumi also declared that Japan seek to alleviate poverty and prevent conflict in Aceh, Mindanao, and East Timor. The commitment to these conflict or post-conflict areas can be interpreted, in part, as Tokyo's desire to remain relevant and influential in Southeast Asia, notwithstanding China's wooing of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) states.

Moreover, Japan acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN during the December 2003 Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo only after China had signed the document at the Bali summit in October the same year. Again, Japan had to play catch up in its strategic game with China in Southeast Asia. Against the backdrop of a rising China competing for influence in Southeast Asia--a region deemed by many Japanese to be their economic backyard--human security is a promising approach for Japan to play an active role in the region.

This article examines a broader concept of security beyond the traditional approach of state-centricity and sovereignty, regime security, and the utility of military power in inter-state conflict in the international system. Instead, the reference point of analysis transcends security for states and their sovereignty, and extends to society and human beings: both the individual and the masses. Simply put, threats are not narrowly confined to the interest and survival of states but also to humanity. In this regard, the article will also analyse Japan's human security role in Southeast Asia. As a caveat, Japan is not just the state and its representatives (political leaders and bureaucrats) but also comprises business groups and civil society (including non-governmental organizations, or NGOs). Although this topic is beyond the scope of the article, we should note that there are Japanese NGOs interested in the human security of Southeast Asia such as humanitarian assistance, human rights, foreign aid, peacebuilding, and environmental protection.

My central claim is that Japan has indeed been playing a larger human security role in post-Cold War Southeast Asia--an approach that allows the country to play a more active role without arousing antipathy domestically and regionally. Given its military occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II, coupled with domestic political and constitutional constraints, Tokyo has avoided a hard state security approach towards the region. Instead, a human security paradigm allows Japan to fulfil its desire to play a larger role beyond economics in Southeast Asia without upsetting its general public and neighbours. …

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