Will Abe champion democracy and human rights in Asia?

Author: André Asplund, EIJS

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to be interested in breaking with traditional Japanese diplomacy by emphasising the need to strengthen democracy and human rights in ASEAN. But will Abe be able to promote the strengthening of these values over strategic cooperation?

Over 40 years after the establishment of the ASEAN–Japan Dialogue, Japanese official development assistance (ODA) underpins Japan’s relationship with Southeast Asia, having helped build vital infrastructure as well as build new opportunities and markets for Japanese businesses. Japanese trade with ASEAN, facilitated by said ODA, has surpassed that of both the US and the EU, and is now exceeded only by trade with China.

ASEAN is also increasingly important to Japan because of its potential geostrategic role in Asia, particularly with respect to a more assertive China.

Abe has emphasised ‘ensuring that the seas, a vital common to us all, are governed by laws and rules, not by might’. Freedom of navigation is essential for Japan to secure transport routes to allow for continued access to natural resources. Japan aims to intensify strategic cooperation with ASEAN members, strengthening the maritime capabilities of countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

One way the Abe administration seeks to realise this is by amending Japan’s ODA principles to allow aid to be used in support of non-military operations by foreign militaries — something that is currently banned. But Japan is in effect already circumventing the ban on providing ODA to foreign militaries. Japanese ODA funds some ASEAN member nations’ responses to non-traditional security issues, like antiterrorism and antipiracy, by labelling them as law enforcement issues, not defence issues.

And yet the Abe administration has also started to emphasise normative values over economic and strategic interests in its relationship with ASEAN. In the ‘New Principles of Japanese Diplomacy’, announced by Abe while on his ASEAN tour, ‘protecting freedom of thought, expression, and speech in this region’ was ranked first — above principles concerning security and economic cooperation. When Japan announced its ASEAN-specific ‘Five Principles of Japan’s ASEAN Diplomacy’ it again ranked promoting normative values (in ASEAN) first, above more traditional principles of economic and security cooperation.

That the Abe administration included a specific reference to ‘promote and protect … universal values such as freedom, democracy and basic human rights’ in ASEAN at all is a significant change from previous administrations.

Historically Japan has chosen an approach of ‘learning rather than preaching’ and ‘praising achievements rather than criticising shortcomings’. This is arguably due to economic and strategic considerations. Japan’s identity as both a Western and Eastern nation has likely also contributed to this approach. Japan identifies with the West and argues that this connection is grounded in shared fundamental values such as human rights, democracy and liberal market economy.

But Japan has not supported Western-sponsored sanctions of ASEAN nations that violate human rights to any significant extent. This is likely due to the Japanese war legacy in Asia and the perceived risk of alienation from its neighbours. When Japan has occasionally voiced concern over human rights violations in the region, East Asian nations have accused Japan of hypocrisy, referring to atrocities committed by Japan during World War II.

How then should Abe’s approach to democracy and human rights promotion in ASEAN be interpreted?

Abe delivered the ‘Five Principles of Japan’s ASEAN Diplomacy’ in Indonesia, the largest democracy in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is an increasingly important partner for Japan economically and strategically as a hedge against Chinese influence in the region. In this context, Japan could emphasise the notion of ‘sharing’ values such as democracy and human rights — values that Indonesia has been promoting within the ASEAN framework. An ASEAN with values closer to Japan’s would, arguably, be more inclined to cooperate with Japan over China in the future.

Abe’s growing focus on values such as democracy and human rights, at least rhetorically, could be an attempt to balance his unpopular move to overhaul Japan’s military policy. Abe has recently loosened Japan’s self-imposed ban on exports of military weapons and reinterpreted the Article 9 peace clause. The strategic use of ODA to strengthen democracy and human rights could be a way for Abe to legitimise such moves, at home and abroad.

Will Abe turn Japan into a champion on human rights and democracy in ASEAN?

The Japanese government is unlikely to be anything but pragmatic in its approach to promoting democratisation and adherence to human rights in ASEAN. Japan has had four recessions since 2000 and ASEAN can provide Japan with potential economic benefits in the new ASEAN Economic Community, as well as a way to strategically hedge against Chinese influence in the region. There appears to be too much at stake for the Abe administration to risk its relations with ASEAN by getting tough on human rights.

Japan’s statements at the 17th ASEAN–Japan Summit in Naypyidaw on 14 November 2014 indicated pragmatism is likely to overshadow human rights advocacy, despite Abe’s ‘new’ direction in Japanese diplomacy. The only recorded reference to human rights during the summit was made in relation to Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Addressing the democracy deficit and gross human rights violations in some ASEAN member-countries does not seem to be a priority on Japan’s diplomatic agenda. Promoting the construction of high speed trains, building industrial infrastructure and securing safe sea-lanes, on the other hand, are.

André Asplund is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the European Institute of Japanese Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics. His research focuses on Japanese ODA in relation to democratisation and human rights implementation in Southeast Asia.

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