Dif­fi­cult tri­lat­eral re­la­tions

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Aspe­cial three-day sum­mit be­tween Ja­pan and the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions is sched­uled to start on Dec 13, but Kyodo news agency has al­ready re­ported that the two sides have reached an agree­ment on main­tain­ing airspace safety over the high seas and will re­lease a joint state­ment on the is­sue. The re­ported move is widely seen as tar­get­ing China’s newly es­tab­lished Air De­fense Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Zone in the East China Sea.

Will the sum­mit is­sue a joint state­ment aimed at China? What di­rec­tion will Ja­pan-ASEAN re­la­tions take? And does the in­ti­mate Ja­pan-ASEAN re­la­tion­ship be­ing bandied about by Ja­pan mean the two sides will forge a strate­gic al­liance against China in cer­tain fields? China has enough rea­sons to be con­cerned about th­ese ques­tions.

The in­tro­duc­tion of the Fukuda Doc­trine in the 1970s marked Ja­pan’s ma­jor strate­gic shift to­ward ASEAN. The doc­trine says Ja­pan will never be­come a mil­i­tary power, and will de­velop “heart-to-heart” re­la­tions with South­east Asian coun­tries and com­mit it­self as an equal part­ner in es­tab­lish­ing peace and pros­per­ity in the re­gion.

Dur­ing the Cold War, the paci­fist Fukuda Doc­trine and its prac­tice by Ja­pan made many ASEAN mem­ber states par­don Tokyo for the atroc­i­ties and suf­fer­ing it had un­leashed on them dur­ing World War II. This helped the de­vel­op­ment of ASEANJa­pan re­la­tions, paving the way for an im­prove­ment in Ja­pan’s bi­lat­eral ties with ASEAN mem­ber states af­ter the end of the Cold War.

In re­cent years, how­ever, Ja­pan has in­ten­si­fied its diplo­matic and eco­nomic ini­tia­tives to­ward ASEAN for three spe­cific rea­sons. The first is se­cu­rity con­sid­er­a­tion. China’s rapid rise, along with its mil­i­tary buildup, has rat­tled Ja­pan, which on many oc­ca­sions has ex­pressed con­cern over the so-called lack of trans­parency of the Chi­nese mil­i­tary. Ja­pan has also voiced con­cern over Chi­nese navy ships nav­i­gat­ing through in­ter­na­tional waters around Ja­pan and China’s in­creas­ingly as­sertive stance on the dis­putes over the is­lands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Strate­gi­cally, Ja­pan mis­takes China to be a ma­jor threat to its se­cu­rity.

Ja­pan has, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, been play­ing a dual strate­gic game. It’s true that Ja­pan is com­mit­ted to its de­fense-ori­ented al­liance with the US. But it’s also true that it is des­per­ate to add the el­e­ment of ag­gres­sion to it. Be­sides, it has also been try­ing to lure more coun­tries to side with it on strate­gic and se­cu­rity is­sues. And given ASEAN’s ir­re­place­able role in re­gional mul­ti­lat­eral se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion — along with the fact that some ASEAN mem­ber states also have mar­itime ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes with China — Ja­pan sees the South­east Asian as­so­ci­a­tion as its nat­u­ral ally to coun­ter­bal­ance China’s ris­ing in­flu­ence.

The sec­ond rea­son for Ja­pan’s fran­tic diplo­matic and busi­ness ini­tia­tives is eco­nom­ics. Ow­ing to lack of re­sources within the coun­try, Ja­pan needs the rich nat­u­ral re­sources in South­east Asia. Also, be­cause of the con­tin­u­ous ten­sion be­tween Bei­jing and Tokyo, cou­pled with ris­ing la­bor and other costs in China, many Ja­panese com­pa­nies have started shift­ing their in­dus­trial units to some South­east Asian coun­tries, re­sult­ing in the rapid growth of Ja­pan-ASEAN trade. Ja­pan’s tilt to­ward South­east Asia is borne out by the fact that Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, who re­turned to power in De­cem­ber 2012 af­ter five years, has al­ready vis­ited all the 10 ASEAN mem­ber states.

The third rea­son is strate­gic con­sid­er­a­tion. Ever since the end of the Cold War, Ja­pan has been mak­ing ef­forts to be­come a “nor­mal coun­try” so that it can build a pow­er­ful mil­i­tary. Ja­pan’s diplo­matic en­deav­ors in re­cent years also show that it is des­per­ate to be­come a per­ma­nent UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil mem­ber, for which it needs the sup­port of other coun­tries, es­pe­cially its neigh­bors that once suf­fered un­der Ja­panese in­va­sions.

In an opin­ion poll con­ducted by the Ja­panese For­eign Min­istry in six South­east Asian coun­tries in 2008, 78 per­cent of the re­spon­dents fa­mil­iar with the work­ings of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, sup­ported Ja­pan’s bid to be­come a per­ma­nent Se­cu­rity Coun­cil mem­ber. This shows Ja­pan-ASEAN ties have a role to play in en­hanc­ing Ja­pan’s global sta­tus, which is some­thing China can­not over­look.

The com­pe­ti­tion be­tween China and Ja­pan is fierce, es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to trade with ASEAN mem­ber states. China’s good-neigh­borly diplo­macy and its highly prof­itable win-win co­op­er­a­tion with South­east Asian coun­tries are a cause for con­cern for Ja­pan. That’s why Ja­pan launched the “val­ues diplo­macy”, as Abe calls it, to con­tain China.

Also, Ja­pan is ac­tively in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment of the Mekong River basin, has in­creased de­vel­op­ment aid to, and in­vest­ment and in­fra­struc­ture con­struc­tion in coun­tries in In­dochina, and tried ev­ery means to get in­volved in the South China Sea dis­putes — the lat­est pre­text be­ing China’s Air De­fense Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Zone.

Ja­pan’s moves could thwart China’s ef­forts to build a har­mo­nious en­vi­ron­ment in the re­gion. Ja­pan is seek­ing to max­i­mize its own in­ter­ests by mak­ing use of China’s dif­fer­ences with some of its neigh­bors. But in the long run, Ja­pan’s ap­proach will fur­ther un­der­mine Sino-Ja­panese re­la­tions and com­pli­cate the re­gional se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion, which is not in line with ei­ther Ja­pan’s or China’s in­ter­ests.

None­the­less, ASEAN, which is known for its bal­anced diplo­macy, will not get eas­ily in­volved in dis­putes be­tween ma­jor pow­ers. Ja­pan may suc­ceed in draw­ing some South­east Asian coun­tries, such as the Philip­pines, to its side but it can­not count on the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of ASEAN mem­ber states or ASEAN as a whole to con­tain China. The au­thor is a re­searcher at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Strat­egy, Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sciences.

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