Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

In Defense of the East Asian Regional Order: Explaining Japan's Newfound Interest in Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

In Defense of the East Asian Regional Order: Explaining Japan's Newfound Interest in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt


In his first press conference for the current year conducted on January 5, pursue a "proactive contribution to international peace."1 The phrase has been used numerous times by Prime Minister Abe to characterize his government's strategic vision and narrative of the role for Japan, including in the country's "National Security Strategy,"2 "National Defence Program Guidelines"3 and in almost every major foreign policy speech delivered by the prime minister and his foreign and defense ministers. One such recent occasion was the prime minister's keynote address to the Shangri La Dialogue in May 2014.4

That Japan make a proactive contribution to peace is linked to Abe's insistence that "Japan is not, and will never be, a Tier-two country."5 The desire for Japan to play such a "proactive role" was offered in large part as the justification for the formation of a National Security Council to coordinate strategic, foreign and defense policy under the Prime Minister's direction, for increasing Japanese defense spending in 2013 (which was the first increase for eleven years even if the rise was a modest one of 0.8 per cent,) and for relaxing its self-imposed arms export ban for the first time by revising the country's longstanding "Three Principles on Arms Exports" - guidelines which had been left in place for over fifty years. Tellingly, seeking to play a more "proactive role" is at the heart of Abe's reinterpretation of the country's pacifist constitution to allow contributions to "collective security" (i.e., coming to the military aid of allies) under a number of scenarios. Indeed, and at the time of writing this article, legislation allowing a broadening of Japan's role along these lines is being debated in the country's Diet.

The (re)emergence of a "can-do" and "will-do" Japan under Abe is also of high interest to Southeast Asia - to key strategic players such as Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia - but also to the region as a whole. Telling an audience in Jakarta of the strategic significance of Southeast Asia due to the region's geographical position between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Abe promised that Japan would shift its attention southward rather than only focus more narrowly on its immediate environs as it has done for decades after the Second World War. Abe also reaffirmed the significance of the Japan-U.S. alliance in maintaining stability in Southeast Asia (and not just Northeast Asia,) while the prime minister would make genuine efforts to "strengthen ties with maritime Asia" and also with ASEAN.6 When one considers that Abe took the highly symbolic decision to visit all ten ASEAN nations during his first year in office of his second coming as prime minister (a first for any non-ASEAN leader,) it is clear that Tokyo's contemporary strategic interest in Southeast Asia under Abe is both genuine and meaningful.

Less clear is Tokyo's strategic motivation, giving rise to some alarmist sentiment in the region. Japan's conception of an expanded strategic role for itself in East Asia, including in Southeast Asia, has led to some capitals (namely Beijing and Seoul) and commentaries chiding Tokyo for a shift "to the right" and returning to a "militaristic past" which might even "threaten peace and stability" in the region.7 One survey of South Koreans - a country with still raw memories of its troubled history with Japan - even found that sixty-two per cent of respondents perceived Abe's Japan to be a "military threat."8 Such sentiments tend to be based on crude "slippery slope" projections of an ever expanding Japanese strategic role and presence including in Southeast Asia. Little consideration is given to what Japan is actually doing in the region and why; and importantly what enduring limitations remain for Japan when it comes to Tokyo playing an extended role in Southeast Asia in particular.

The paper is designed to answer these above contentions. It begins by looking at the pillars of the liberal order that emerged after the Second World War, and why China's rise potentially presents a fundamental challenge to such an order. …

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