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Japan’s Standing in Southeast Asia: Down But Not Out

Japan, one of the most trusted partners of ASEAN, has seen its rankings in  The State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey Report drop in some key indicators. But not all is lost if it plays its cards right.

In the category of ‘doing the right thing’ for peace and security, there was a 14 percentage point drop from 2021 to 54.2 per cent. For the category ‘leadership in rules-based order and international law’, Japan dropped one place to fifth place from fourth a year earlier. The same applied to perceptions of Japan ‘championing free trade’.

The number of respondents choosing Japan also dipped in two other categories: ‘most influential economic power’ (2.6 per cent in 2022 versus 4.1 per cent in 2021) and ‘most influential political/ security actor’ (1.4 per cent in 2022 versus 3.5 per cent in 2021).

Taken together, Japan appears to have fallen in the rankings above. But each of these shifts in ranking may have its own potential underlying macro factors. Overall, Japan was distracted and busy with global events in 2021. The Japanese leadership was preoccupied with its vaccination campaigns, hosting the Olympics in Tokyo (July-August 2021) and the Paralympics (August-September 2021). Tokyo was also managing a Covid-19 state of emergency until 22 August 2022.

In terms of overall diplomatic overtures, some possible reasons for the lower-than-expected ranking may include Japan being a relative latecomer to vaccine diplomacy. Bogged down by its own domestic vaccination campaign, Japan was unable to approach other countries with its vaccine diplomacy until June 2021. When it started, Japan had to prioritise donations based on urgency determined by outbreaks and access to vaccines. This applied to economies such as Vietnam and Taiwan. The greater visibility of the United States and China in providing vaccine support to the region and Japan’s preoccupation with handling the pandemic at home may also have contributed to the slower start.

But Japan has since caught up to become the globe’s third biggest supplier of vaccines in grant-in-aid and has provided 30 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines mainly to Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines). Currently, Japan has trained its sights on helping Africa, with 10 million doses lined up. In terms of leadership in championing free trade, Japan might feel hard done by Survey respondents. After all, it was a key driver of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and was one of the first to ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an agreement that involved 30 per cent of world trade and population.

Despite the 2022 dips, Japan still has strengths in certain areas. Respondents still see Japan as the most trusted regional power (the US was in second place) even with a 14 percentage point decline compared to 2021. Among the Survey respondents who positively evaluated Japan, 46.6 per cent think that Japan is a ‘responsible stakeholder that respects and champions international law’; another 25.8 per cent opine that ‘Japan has vast economic resources and the political will to provide global leadership’.

Japan can also continue to utilise its resources for capacity building in ASEAN countries like Laos, whose trust in Japan as a leader in maintaining rules-based order and upholding international law increased by 7.3 percentage points compared to the 2021 Survey. Both countries cooperate in a host of areas that were discussed bilaterally by their defence ministers. On 23 June 2021, Japanese Defence Minister Kishi Nobuo had a video teleconference with Chansamone Chanyalath (the Laotian Minister of National Defence) on a range of issues including infectious diseases mitigation.

It can also capitalize on working closer with other like-minded democracies to emphasise a values-based Indo-Pacific. The 11th online meeting of the Japan-Philippines High Level Joint Committee on Infrastructure Development and Economic Cooperation held on 28 July 2021 discussed Japan’s 1 trillion yen public-private sector financing for metropolitan infrastructure projects and Covid-19 vaccine delivery. Unsurprisingly, Japan is the most trusted country in the Philippines, as indicated by 82.3 per cent of its respondents. This is the highest among the 10 ASEAN states.

Japan’s soft power is undisputed in the region. It remains the top choice for Southeast Asians for choice of travel destination (22.8 per cent) and has consistently maintained its lead since 2020. It is also the region’s fifth choice for tertiary education at 9.6 per cent, but the first choice for Laos (27.3 per cent). Japan provides scholarships for ASEAN students through the annual ASEAN in Today’s World programme. This has been hosted since 2009 by Kyushu University, in collaboration with universities such as Viet Nam National University, Ateneo de Manila University, Mahidol University and the University of Malaya. The programme contributes to the implementation of ASEAN Work Plan on Education towards advancing ASEAN tertiary education and human resource development.

An expeditious opening of Japan’s borders will help to reinforce its soft power and build greater people-to-people connectivity and exchanges. In anticipation of 2022’s travel sector re-opening, the ASEAN-Japan Centre organised the ‘BIMP-EAGA (Brunei Darussalam–Indonesia–Malaysia–Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area) Tourism Webinar – Japanese market insights and trends post-COVID-19’ for ASEAN tourism operators on 12 January. The webinar sought to share updated information on the Japanese tourism industry. Participants expressed interest in working with ASEAN partners to market BIMP-EAGA sites to Japanese tourists as well.

In reality, Japan’s strategic engagement with Southeast Asia remains largely unchanged in 2021, with the possible exception that high-level face-to-face engagements between Southeast Asian and Japanese leaders may have been restricted by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a conclusion reached in the Survey as well. As Omicron’s peak infections decline, it is expected that the current Kishida administration will step up face-to-face diplomacy with ASEAN leaders, as it celebrates the golden jubilee (50th anniversary) of relations with ASEAN next year. This should provide a fillip to Japan in the eyes of Southeast Asians.

By Lim Tai Wei / fulcrum

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AsiaWE Review.

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