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Editorial: Sticking with tradition, Suga makes Southeast Asia his priority

Visiting the Southeast Asia nations of Vietnam and Indonesia this week on his first foreign trip since becoming prime minister, Yoshihide Suga was applauded for continuing the foreign policy program of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. When Abe returned to power in 2012, he not only made Vietnam his first overseas stop but he visited all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during his first year in office.


China is credited for making the region a priority for Tokyo, but Southeast Asia has always been one of Japan’s vital interests. This country’s leaders have long recognized that they need support from and friendly relations with their counterparts in the region. Those relationships have assumed greater value as Beijing becomes a more formidable diplomatic and economic partner and a security concern.


The two-country, four-day trip was a success, an important achievement for a prime minister widely considered inexperienced in foreign affairs. Suga employed a simple formula: Get tangible deliverables on economic and security concerns. That focus makes sense given restrictions on diplomacy resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak. Large events were discouraged, reducing opportunities for people-to-people and cultural programming.


On the economic front, Suga reportedly procured agreements in both countries to resume business travel between them and Japan, a priority as countries struggle to recover from the pandemic. Details remain to be worked out, but the need to facilitate business travel should provide the motivation needed to conclude arrangements.


Suga’s call for the diversification of supply chains was also well received. Japan, like other developed economies, is concerned about its reliance on China to fill critical nodes in its manufacturing processes. Tokyo has created funding mechanisms to help Japanese companies relocate some operations back to Japan or more widely throughout Southeast Asia. (The former has received attention; the latter has not.) Governments in Hanoi and Jakarta welcome increased investments in their country by Japanese companies.


That drive also spurred Suga to promise Indonesian President Joko Widodo that Japan would continue infrastructure projects, especially on high-speed trains, programs that make the country a more inviting site for private investment. Japan also announced that it would provide Indonesia ¥50 billion ($470 million) loan for disaster prevention and to fight COVID-19.


Just as important were security agreements. In Hanoi, Suga and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc agreed to transfer Japanese defense technology and equipment to Vietnam; in that, too, specifics are to be worked out. That agreement follows a July deal between Vietnam and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) by which Hanoi will borrow ¥36.63 billion to build six coast guard patrol vessels, to be delivered by October 2025.


In Jakarta, Suga and Widodo pledged to strengthen and deepen security and defense ties. Building on a 2015 agreement to enhance security cooperation in the South China Sea, they said they would hold a meeting of foreign and defense ministers at an early date and speed up talks on sales of defense-related equipment and technology.


It is easy to see China as the force animating Suga’s trip. Kuni Miyake, a former diplomat and now an advisor to the prime minister, explained in a Japan Times column earlier this week that China was “the elephant in the room” in meetings even if no one wanted to call it out by name. In remarks, Suga denounced moves “that go against the rule of law” in the South China Sea while emphasizing that “ASEAN and Japan fully share fundamental principles.” He and Prime Minister Phuc agreed to cooperate on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative.


That agreement is less than it seems. Cooperation is not endorsing, and that difference defines the gap between Japan and ASEAN governments, which insist that they are not on board with the vision. Instead, the Southeast Asian organization has developed the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, accepting the idea of an Indo-Pacific region but scrupulously avoiding the endorsing a particular strategy. Suga tried to close the circle between Japan’s vision and the ASEAN outlook by saying that he “strongly supports” a document that “powerfully sets forth the rule of law, openness, freedom, transparency and inclusiveness as ASEAN’s principles for behavior.”


Consistent with the principle of inclusivity — and seeking to defuse concerns in ASEAN capitals and silence complaints in Beijing — Suga denied that the Quad, the informal grouping of Japan, the United States, Australia and India that met earlier this month in Tokyo, had any intention of becoming an Asian version of NATO, the trans-Atlantic security organization. Rather, Japan and its partners “are willing to cooperate with any country that shares our thinking.”


ASEAN governments’ reluctance to anger Beijing stems from the outsize role China plays in their economies. It is the leading source of imports for all ASEAN members (save Brunei) and China’s share of ASEAN total trade has swelled from 11.6% in 2009 to 18% in 2019. Those governments are wary of Beijing’s readiness to use that trade as leverage or as a way to punish them for decisions with which it disagrees. Japanese trade, investment, aid and assistance is an attractive counterweight — and hedge against Chinese revisionism.


Seeing those relationships through the prism of competition with China is a mistake, however. Suga was right to emphasize that Japan and ASEAN are “old friends” and that friendship is the real foundation for enduring and stable relations between them. Suga and his team must ensure that rhetoric is realized in practice and policy.


The Japan Times Editorial Board

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