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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the Asean Declaration by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Since then, membership has expanded to include Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Its aims include accelerating economic growth, social progress and cultural development of its member states and the protection of regional peace and stability.

CommentInsight & Opinion

Asean must not be dragged into an anti-China coalition by Japan

Simon Tay says while Japan’s re-energised interest in Southeast Asia is to be welcomed, Asean must keep the focus on the economy and resist being dragged into an anti-China coalition

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 2:03am

Everyone's pivoting to Asia, even Asians. After the Barack Obama administration's rebalancing and Australia's white-paper pledge to give more emphasis to the region, here comes Japan. The recent visit to Southeast Asia by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscores this.

Rather than heading to Washington, his first overseas trip was to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. His foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, preceded him by visiting the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

As the first Asian nation to modernise, Japan has always been important to the region. In the second world war, conquest mixed with an anti-colonial awakening helped end empires and shape nationalism. In the decades since, Southeast Asia has welcomed Japan without the historical resentment seen in Korea and China.

But this new emphasis that the Abe government brings must be met with some reservation. It comes amid tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This has already spilled over into street riots, and had an impact on trade and financial co-operation between the region's two largest economies. Many suggest that reaching out to Asean is Japan's way of trying to align others to stand up to China.

The Philippines greeted the Abe initiative by welcoming Japan to rearm and that was reciprocated with a promise to provide multi-role vessels to enhance the Philippine coast guard. This was predictable, as the Benigno Aquino government was involved in a nervy stand-off with Chinese vessels over Scarborough Shoal last year.

But this cannot and should not be the response for others in the region.

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and four Asean member states - Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei as well as the Philippines - are disconnected and considerably different in terms of their legal merits from the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. Moreover, after Cambodia's partisan behaviour last year while serving as Asean chairman, the 10-nation group must focus on unity and neutrality.

Asean must not be dragged into an anti-China coalition with Japan. Instead, the group as a whole must more calmly manage the differences and rebuild trust with Beijing as a basis from which to negotiate an agreed code of conduct.

The nuances of Japanese rhetoric must therefore be watched. Take, for example, Abe's comments when visiting Jakarta. While agreeing that international law is important to the settlement of disputes, he characterised the region as an "open ocean" and called on Japan and Asean to "protect this with all our might".

Rather than might and military means, Japan's re-engagement with Asean should emphasise the economic dimension. In 2011, Japan's direct investment in Asean countries was about 1.55 trillion yen (about HK$155 billion at exchange rates then) - more than the 1.01 trillion yen invested in China.

Further, Asean has launched negotiations for a regional comprehensive economic partnership with its partners, and Japanese support for the undertaking would be most welcome.

Japan is also well placed to render assistance to Asean efforts to develop infrastructure and connectivity. Take Myanmar, for instance, which has opened its doors to foreign investment, in an effort to end isolation and Chinese dominance.

The Abe administration has already forgiven about US$6 billion of loans to Myanmar, and pledged its willingness to lend more. Such efforts can support the keen interest from Japanese companies to start up projects there, as well as the many, real needs in this strategically placed Asean member.

Asean would be well advised to monitor how Abe, noted for his nationalistic instincts, manages relations with China. If Tokyo recognises the deep Sino-Japanese interdependence, this will reassure and stabilise the region. One sign will be whether Tokyo will go ahead with negotiations on a northeast Asian trade pact.

Another key factor will be the Abe government's initiatives to restart the Japanese economy - using policies that are controversial in their own right.

The world's third-largest economy has been, and can again be, a major factor in the growth of the region. A more outward-looking and dynamic Japan can potentially open up a new phase of relations with Asean. But if the Abe administration is aggressively anti-Chinese, this will be a negative factor in regional relations, which have grown more difficult in recent years.

After the decades of no and slow growth, there has been a tendency of some to look past Japan, especially as leaders came and went in rapid succession. Now, however, what the Abe administration does must be watched by other Asians with both hope and concern.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and an associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. He is the author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America


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This article is now closed to comments

There's an English saying :
My country, right or wrong.
The root problem is the corrupt rape-and-pillage mentality of the Chinese Communist Party government. Sadly, the leaders groomed by the CCP's system instinctively know no behavioural bounds, so exploit they surely will if not restrained, and we're seeing this wherever they go worldwide. Mr Tay's article is well formed and presented but he fails to address this pivotal dimension.
Suddenly China has the economic muscle to obtain natural resources throughout the world and you call it rape-and-pillage. Yawn! It becomes boring to respond to people like you. Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, the USA, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Japan are all countries that have invaded others and then exploited (stolen/raped/pillaged) natural resources. This is not to mention murdered and suppressed the people of these foreign nations (foreign to the occupiers).
China are such b'tards, they are approaching foreign firms are asking to buy stuff from them with money. Because that's key you know doofus? Chinese firms (with a profit motive) are trying to purchase goods from foreign firms (with a profit motive) using something called money. You would prefer it if they offered the traditional Japanese deal. Give us your resources or we will murder you and take what we want.
Certainly the corrupt rape-and-pilage mentality of the CCP is much more dangerous than the rape-and-pillage actions of the west around the world (oops i mean spreading democracy with love with their good will non deadly bombs) and the CCP mentality is certainly unmatch for Japan's rape-and-pillage in denial.
The mention in passing of Cambodia's 'partisanship' is interesting as of course it was Cambodia's unquestioning support for China's territorial ambitions that damaged ASEAN unity so much last year. To describe what happened in the way the author does is odd, to say the least.
A poor article and wholly unpersuasive. Why does Simon Tay lecture Japan and not China? He says Asean and Japan must not unite in their common interest and defence, a rather curious opinion since China, not Japan, is today's totalitarian aggressor. China is conducting a concerted campaign to persuade, bribe or bully the smaller Asean nations to negotiate with it individually (when they are weakest) rather than combine together to resist Chinese hegemony over East Asia and the entire South China Sea. China's intention is to dominate the region and strip the entire world of its natural resources.
China is the nation which needs to moderate its imperialist ambitions, but it has no sense of proportion and will destroy the Earth's environment.
Could it be that Simon Tay's stance is racially motivated?
Funny how the west have been in the and still is starting wars all over the world to steal natural resources from the host. If China is half of what the US is, we will be starting wars in all our front instead of constantly being provoked. So what if they are small? Just because they are small and China is big than the wrong have to be China? What a **** up logic you have.
Maybe those Pinoys should not be dumb enough to sent an Arm military vessel to bully Chinese fisher men and maybe those Japanese should never have pull their cheap shot at "nationalising" the DY islands. Funny how propagandist like yourself still claim that China is the bully when the ones pulling their guns out is Japan and Phillipines.
Rubbish. China, unlike Japan has never shown any inclination to empire build. The Japanese will suffer and continue to suffer until they are made to understand the atrocities that previous generations of Japanese carried out in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. The fact that Japan was never forced to face up to these realities has meant that Japan has never had a true military ally it can depend on since the Second World War. The American- Japanese relationship is at best one of mutual manipulation.
I do agree though that the article is rubbish. Describing Japan's past conquests as awakening anti-colonial nationalistic feelings is offensive. Japan carried out barbaric experiments on Chinese and other peoples and in general showed a complete disregard for the lives of anyone who was not Japanese.
Do you think the Americans fully understand what the Japanese really think of them? Japan needs to have a good hard look in the mirror.


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