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Friday, Jan. 11, 2013

Japan's reset with Myanmar

Special to The Japan Times

KYOTO — Japan has embarked on adjusting its foreign policy following the electoral victory of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which brought Shinzo Abe back to the premiership for the second time.

After the Cabinet was formed on Dec. 26, Abe sent his deputy, Taro Aso, a former prime minister now in charge of the finance ministry, to Myanmar.

Many in Japan felt little surprise over why the first trip for a prominent leader of a newly established government should be to a relatively small country like Myanmar. The explanation was that it was part of the new foreign policy that focuses on a stronger Japanese economic presence in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia.

This policy seems to respond well to an earlier call for Japan to act in support of the United States' "Asia Pivot" policy. But while the obvious goal for Japan is to reach out to many potential markets in Southeast Asia, analysts perceive Tokyo's latest foreign policy ambition as an attempt to reduce Chinese influence in the region.

Over the years Japan has forged friendly ties with Southeast Asian nations. In the context of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Japan has been a well-respected, full-dialogue partner since 1977. In ASEAN's view, this relationship has been good but not excellent, and somewhat taken for granted particularly by the Japanese. Japan has invested its diplomatic energy mainly in its alliance with the U.S. — an imperative foreign policy choice for Japan. Clearly there has been a lack of strategy in the Japan-ASEAN partnership.

In retrospect, Japan's diplomatic activism toward Southeast Asia was evident in 1977 following the announcement of the Fukuda Doctrine. Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, while paying an official visit to Manila, made famous the speech in which he articulated his country's new diplomatic initiative. The speech indicated that, for the first time in the post-World War II era, Japan was eager to play an active role in both economic and political affairs in Southeast Asia without depending on military imperatives, and in a way as to make military considerations less prominent.

The doctrine consisted of three key points: rejection of the role of a military power, promotion of the relationship of mutual confidence and trust ("heart-to-heart" diplomacy), and equal partnership with ASEAN for building peace and prosperity throughout Southeast Asia.

But while the Fukuda Doctrine continued to serve as the bedrock of Japan's diplomacy toward Southeast Asia, it was not brought up to date according to the changing regional environment, at least not until 2008, when Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda upgraded his father's doctrine through the "Inland Sea" vision.

The Fukuda Doctrine failed to prepare Japan for coping with new developments in the region. One major development has been the rise of China. In the past decade, China has emerged as a major regional power while American hegemony has been in decline. It is becoming more assertive and influential in Southeast Asia, prompting Japan to urgently search for a new way to counterbalance rising China and to protect its interests in Southeast Asia.

The proposal for an East Asian Community by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002 represented Japan's drive for regionalism to consolidate its position in the region. But even Japan's concept of an East Asian Community has died down.

Back in Myanmar, while promoting bilateral ties was Japan's top priority, there was also a hidden agenda. China has made inroads into Myanmar, both in political influence and economic domination.

Undoubtedly, Aso's trip to Naypyidaw could be interpreted as Japan's move to counteract the Chinese impact in this country, and the region at large.

A Sino-Japanese conflict of sorts intensified last year. A dispute over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea (called Diaoyu in Chinese) has damaged diplomatic relations, which already suffer from historical wounds.

The conflict between Japan and China demonstrate a reality in which the two powers are competing for a greater control over the Southeast Asian region. China is wary of Japan's renewed interest in Southeast Asia with the backing of its U.S. ally. So Beijing kept a watchful eye on Aso's landmark trip to Myanmar. Long years of halfhearted Japanese engagement with Southeast Asia opened the door for China to take full advantage of the leadership gap.

Overcoming the Chinese influence in Southeast Asia will be difficult for Japan. That's because China is pursuing a more aggressive approach to ensure a strong relationship with Southeast Asia and ASEAN. In the words of Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew: "It has become the norm in Southeast Asia for China to take the lead and Japan to tag along. Since Japan has been unable to recover its economy, it has had no choice but to allow China to take the initiative."

The issue of Japan's economic recession could prove to be a major obstacle in Japan's new active foreign policy.

At the heart of this issue lies a crucial question: Is the Abe administration really ready to take on Southeast Asia and to enter into competition with China?

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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