Newspaper article The Daily Yomiuri (Toyko, Japan)

Japan Must Boost Its ASEAN Ties Strategically

Newspaper article The Daily Yomiuri (Toyko, Japan)

Japan Must Boost Its ASEAN Ties Strategically

Article excerpt

Brunei recently hosted a series of ASEAN-related regional conferences, including an annual foreign ministers' meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the ASEAN Regional Forum attended by foreign ministers from 26 countries, and the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers' Meeting.

The programs included an ASEAN-China meeting, in which foreign ministers from the two sides agreed to launch talks in September on a binding code of conduct governing maritime activities in the South China Sea, where China and ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, have territorial claims.

This is a major step forward, considering that the previous annual meeting in Phnom Penh last July failed to issue a joint communique due to divisions among ASEAN countries over the territorial issues in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, the ASEAN-China accord does not mean a solution to the maritime issues is in sight. China, for its part, remains firm that South China Sea claims should be resolved through bilateral negotiations. In a related development earlier this year, the Philippines took China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for arbitration after Beijing brought the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea under its de facto control following a standoff between patrol vessels from both sides. Beijing has rejected Manila's action.

More recently, Chinese maritime surveillance vessels have remained in waters off Ayungin Reef, part of the Spratly Islands that are effectively controlled by the Philippines. Just before the ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers met in Brunei, Beijing demanded that Manila stop its "infringement on the territorial sovereignty of our country." Although China has agreed to begin negotiations with the ASEAN countries on the code of conduct in the South China Sea, it will strive to expand the areas under its de facto control, while taking its time to negotiate the code of conduct.

Before discussing ASEAN affairs further, I want to clarify that my introductory remarks do not imply that I believe Japan should do more to "counterbalance" China.

Since December, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to the helm of the government, Japan has been markedly active in strengthening relations with Southeast Asia. Abe visited Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia in January and Myanmar in May. He is reportedly planning to visit the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore later this month.

In covering the prime minister's tours of Southeast Asia, and those of the foreign and defense ministers for that matter, the Japanese media have a tendency to say they are aimed at counterbalancing China. Although I do not say that such an interpretation is entirely wrong, it is out of the question that Japan's East Asia policies, notably those toward Southeast Asia, are aimed only at restraining China. Southeast Asia is an important region in itself and it is important strategically for Japan to strengthen its cooperation with countries in this region to ensure the stability and prosperity of East Asia.

The following statistics indicate how important Southeast Asia is. In 2000, the economies of China, ASEAN and India were equivalent to 25.3 percent, 12.6 percent and 10.1 percent, respectively, of the Japanese economy in terms of gross domestic product. The comparable figures rose to 137.9 percent, 37.9 percent and 25 percent as of 2012 and, according to the International Monetary Fund, they will likely surge to 252 percent, 62.3 percent and 50.2 percent by 2018.

Raising ASEAN's voice

What should Japan do to strengthen relations with Southeast Asia? ASEAN groups 10 Southeast Asian countries, yet their national interests vary from country to country. With the exception of Indonesia, which is a member of the Group of 20, all the other ASEAN countries are middle and small powers. When these countries speak individually, their voices are unlikely to wield much influence in the international community. …

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