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Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Geopolitical Signals of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's Visits to ASEAN Countries
ANBOUND

After taking office, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has clearly shown Japan's diplomatic and security stance, which is consistent with his predecessor Shinzo Abe's vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region (FOIP). During his first overseas state visit, Yoshihide Suga chose Vietnam and Indonesia as his destinations instead of the United States, unlike the common practice of the previous Japanese Prime Ministers. Although there could have been several reasons for this, one of which is related to the situation of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. That being said, it is definitely a mistake to think that Japan is taking a different path from the United States when it promotes FOIP in Southeast Asia.

ANBOUND Malaysia's researchers are of the opinion that Yoshihide Suga's latest move should be understood as enriching the vision of FOIP, making it compatible and applicable to ASEAN member states. Judging from his state visits to Vietnam and Indonesia, Japan has shown a good understanding of the situation in the ASEAN region. With Vietnam as the first stop of Suga's state visit, this has in fact expressed Japan's appreciation for Vietnam's recent tough stance on the South China Sea dispute with China. Vietnam, the chair of ASEAN this year, is pushing ASEAN to adopt a unified position on this issue. At the same time, Suga's visit to Indonesia shows that Japan attaches importance to Indonesia's influence in promoting ASEAN's foreign strategy, especially in promoting the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

In view of these reasons for Suga's recent visit to Vietnam and Indonesia, the question now is that, can Japan lead FOIP as a medium-sized power in the region? The success of Tokyo's efforts, in fact, depends on the compatibility and practicality of the FOIP vision among ASEAN member states, rather than the unilateral promotion of the vision by the United States and its implementation in a combative approach. In this sense, Japan may be a more credible mediator than the United States when promoting FOIP in Southeast Asia.

Suga did not hesitate to emphasize compatibility during his visits to Vietnam and Indonesia. In a public speech at the Vietnam Japan University in Hanoi, as well as in the official disclosure of the discussion between Suga and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, although AOIP was formulated based on the centrality of ASEAN, Suga expressed Japan's support for AOIP. He places his emphasis on the common principles of FOIP and AOIP in their respective plans, namely respect for the rule of law, openness, freedom, transparency, and tolerance. This effectively projects Japan as a nation that looks forward to building a peaceful and prosperous future with ASEAN countries in accordance with these basic values.

It is worth noting that respect for the rule of law is still the most important of all common values. Suga called for international law as the basis for the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South Sea, rather than resorting to force or coercion to resolve security issues. This statement is in stark contrast to the outspoken criticism of China by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the quadrilateral ministerial meeting in early October. By not explicitly mentioning China, the approach of Japan is consistent with ASEAN's long-standing expression that it has not singled out China's central position in the South China Sea dispute. It is precisely because of this "soft" discourse on the South Sea dispute that Japan is more willing as compared to the United States to deepen cooperation with ASEAN countries and safeguard international law in Southeast Asia.

In terms of practicality, Japan is clearly extending a helping hand to Vietnam and Indonesia in an attempt to carry out mutually beneficial economic and defense cooperation. As for economy, Japan sees Vietnam as the third country to diversify its supply chain outside of China (i.e. relocation of Japanese companies from the Chinese market). Japan is Vietnam's second-largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), and Suga's visit to Vietnam is considered to be an effort to deepen Japan-Vietnam economic cooperation; the highlight of this effort is that the two countries have signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) on power plants and gas projects in Southeast Asian countries.

For Indonesia, Japan is seeking to participate in the construction of Jakarta's mass rapid transit (MRT) network, to increase the speed of trains in North Java, to help operate and develop the Patimban Deep Sea Port and so on. This means that Japan attempts to realize its FOIP aims by expanding high-quality infrastructure construction. Japan's participation in these infrastructure projects is not just to take advantage of Indonesia's huge infrastructure needs, but to emphasize that its technology and experience are beneficial to ASEAN countries, including its openness, transparency, economic efficiency, and debt sustainability. As former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pointed out, Japan's high emphasis on international standard (G20 Principles) is to distinguish Japan from China in its treatment of ASEAN countries and infrastructure construction.

In the field of defense cooperation, Japan has now eliminated the last obstacle to its foreign arms exports. After the previous arms sales to Malaysia and the Philippines, arms exports will be one of Japan's future priorities. During his visit to Vietnam, Suga and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc agreed to formulate a basic agreement to allow Japan to sell its defense equipment and technology to Vietnam as part of a new area of cooperation between the two countries. Similarly, during the meeting between Suga and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the two sides also agreed to speed up negotiations to allow Japan to export arms to Jakarta in the near future. Undoubtedly, all these defense equipment and technologies have played a role in promoting FOIP, that is, enhancing the military capabilities of ASEAN countries when facing China in the South Sea.

In the coming months and years, it is entirely possible to see further development of FOIP advocated by Japan in other ASEAN member states. Under the two pillars of compatibility and practicality, Japan's FOIP concept is being developed to complement ASEAN's AOIP agenda. This is not only conducive to ASEAN's realization of economic and security benefits through open cooperation with major countries, but also to enriching the vision of FOIP. Judging from a series of phenomena, Japan is showing to the other quadrilateral countries that it is fully capable of leading the development of FOIP in the ASEAN region.

Final analysis conclusion:

The visits of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to ASEAN countries after taking office shows a clear geopolitical signal in the turbulent world under the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan will attach great importance to strengthening cooperation with ASEAN countries to steadily promote its strategic concept of a "free and open Asia-Pacific region".

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