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EDITORIAL | Most Trusted by ASEAN, Japan in Best Position to Lead the Region

China's economy has eclipsed Japan's in these 50 years, but Japan and ASEAN share trust and a vision for prosperity and stability including maritime security.



Prime Minister Fumio Kishida receives the recommendations of the "ASEAN-Japan Young Business Leaders' Summit and Generation Z Business Leaders' Summit Report.'' At the Prime Minister's Office. (©Sankei by Yuta Yasumoto)

Leaders of Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Tokyo on December 17 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their exchanges. They also affirmed strengthening cooperation in the area of security, particularly maritime security.

In their Joint Vision Statement, the parties said that, as "partners for peace and stability," the participants aimed at building a world "where all countries can pursue peace and prosperity and uphold the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, and respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms." 

It also said they sought "to promote a rules-based Indo-Pacific region that is free and open."

The participants clearly had China very much in mind. That neighbor is increasingly acting in a hegemonic manner. In consideration of the marked differences in attitudes towards China among ASEAN member countries, the phrasing was toned down and no nations were named.

Leaders of participating countries pose for a group photo at the special summit meeting commemorating the 50th anniversary of friendship and cooperation between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). (Pool photo)

Building 'Heart-to-heart Relationships' for 50 Years

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized, "As the world faces multiple crises, Japan stands together with ASEAN, which is the cornerstone of a 'free and open Indo-Pacific.'"

Japan is unlike China, which seeks to change the status quo through force and economic coercion. Therefore, Tokyo must effectively communicate that it is a partner who can facilitate the creation of regional peace and development and that it can do so in concert with other countries. 

It was 1973 when Japan held its first ministerial meeting with ASEAN. That one was over trade friction caused by Japanese synthetic rubber exports. There had been violent anti-Japan demonstrations in the region. Nevertheless, a relationship of trust was established in 1977 with Tokyo's announcement of basic policies for ASEAN diplomacy. Those included "building heart-to-heart relationships." 

In the years that followed, ASEAN and the environment surrounding ASEAN changed dramatically. GDP for the entire ASEAN region totaled about $3.6 trillion USD in 2022. That is roughly 80% of Japan's GDP. It illustrates how the region is becoming an equal partner in both name and reality. 

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel tries intercepting a Philippine Coast Guard patrol boat (foreground) near Ayungin Reef in the South China Sea. On October 4, 2023 (©Philippine Coast Guard via Kyodo)

Featuring Trust, Not Just Influence

The South China Sea has also become a region that has an impact on the structure of the world order. Both the United States and China are competing for influence there. 

Meanwhile, the great increase in the size of China's economy has led to a decline in the relative strength of Japan's presence. In 2021, the total value of ASEAN trade with Japan was only one-third of that with China. 

In a public opinion survey conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs among ASEAN countries in 2022, China ranked on top as a future trade partner. Japan was in second place.

However, in a survey of experts in the region conducted by a research institute in Singapore, Japan was ranked as the most trusted country. That was a result of its activities that had contributed to regional stability and development.

Taking advantage of relationships of trust that it has cultivated over the years, Japan should seek to attract countries through the kind of assistance we excel at. For example, people-to-people exchanges in multiple fields and scientific and technological cooperation.

In terms of security, Japan should cooperate with countries having coasts bordering the South China Sea. They are all under pressure from China. It is working together with these countries that will safeguard freedom of the seas.


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun


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