On October 18, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga embarked upon his first overseas trip since taking office in September, heading to Vietnam, this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Indonesia, a regional powerhouse.
For more than four decades, Japan and ASEAN have built a relationship of mutual trust and cooperation for peace and prosperity in Asia. The new prime minister’s destinations also provide an opportune choice for the resumption of face-to-face diplomacy in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier in October, in the “Quad” meeting held in Tokyo, foreign ministers from Japan, the United States, Australia, and India reconfirmed their commitment and agreed to broaden the circle of cooperation toward the realization of their “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision.
Geographically, Southeast Asia is situated at the center of this vision, and the member nations of ASEAN are of vital significance to materializing a free and open Indo-Pacific. It is therefore important for Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia to raise voices harmoniously on such values as freedom of navigation.
The three countries all face the menace of China’s intensifying maritime hegemony in the East and South China Seas. We hope to see Prime Minister Suga’s trip lead to a clear-cut message to hold China’s lawlessness in check.
Earlier, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited five countries on his Southeast Asian tour, urging opposition to the Quad’s Indo-Pacific initiative as an effort to undermine the individual states.
In Cambodia on October 12, Wang promised to prioritize the country to receive Chinese coronavirus vaccines, and succeeded in drawing a remark from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that Phnom Penh would “continue to firmly support China on issues related to its core interests.”
In Malaysia, the Chinese foreign minister compared the Indo-Pacific concept to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, criticizing it as an initiative that would “undermine the prospect of peace and development” in the region.
The Indo-Pacific vision, however, is focused on enabling countries in the region to achieve the benefits of peace and prosperity by observing international rules and norms, not the creation of a military alliance.
This is a natural way of thinking that can easily be accepted by countries “friendly to China” such as Cambodia. Beijing may take it as an initiative aimed at containing Chinese ambitions, simply because China flouts the international rules.
Japan, for its part, has provided significant support to the nation building of ASEAN countries, many of which gained their independence after World War II, through its Official Development Assistance (ODA) and other programs.
In 1977, the Japanese administration of then-Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda introduced to ASEAN the “Fukuda Doctrine” consisting of three diplomatic principles, including a pledge that Japan would never become a military power.
Since then, Japan’s ties with ASEAN countries have deepened, based on these principles. As a result, Tokyo has a more flexible and sensitive diplomatic approach to the ASEAN signatories, differing in various respects from that of China, of course, but also from that of the United States, Australia, and India. The Suga administration should promote this approach to regional diplomacy by making the most of the unique advantages it provides for Japan.
(Read the editorial here in its original Japanese.)
Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun