Southern comfort
Japan looks to ASEAN for security cooperation
July-September 2014
By: J Berkshire Miller

Since the return to power of Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in late 2012, Japan has embarked on an ambitious diplomatic strategy targeting robust engagement with countries in Southeast Asia. Indeed, in his first year in office, Prime Minister Abe visited all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Abe has also pledged support to the Philippines, Vietnam and others as they jockey with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea. As Tokyo finds itself under increasing pressure from China over its row in the East China Sea, the Abe administration has poured diplomatic assets into ASEAN in an attempt to “couple” the maritime disputes into a more normative argument based upon adherence to international law and the freedom of navigation.

Japan’s relationship with ASEAN has traditionally been based on its strategic use of soft power, as highlighted by decades of generous overseas development assistance and significant amounts of foreign direct investment. But amid changing geopolitical tides in East Asia, Tokyo has been gradually recalculating its approach to Southeast Asia in order to build stronger security ties to the region.

Japan’s renewed approach to ASEAN was articulated during the first months of the Abe “2.0 administration” and is based upon five pillars: 1) protection and promotion of universal values, such as freedom, democracy and basic human rights; 2) cooperation with ASEAN to ensure that free and open seas are governed by laws and rules, and not by force, and to welcome the United States’ “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific region; 3) further promotion of trade and investment, including flows of goods, money, people and services through various economic partnership networks, for the economic revitalization and prosperity of both Japan and ASEAN member states; 4) protection of Asia’s diverse cultural heritages and traditions; and 5) promotion of exchanges among Asia’s young generation to further foster mutual understanding.

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