Japan’s vision for the East Asian security order

Author: Ryo Sahashi, Kanagawa University

The regional order in East Asia is in flux. The relative decline of US power in Asia has led to new challenges. The principles, rules, norms and methods for managing the international agenda are being questioned. The willingness of the United States to maintain an active role in East Asia, alongside the behaviour of China and key groupings such as ASEAN will define the future of the region. How these key actors respond to the changing security environment will be crucial in determining the future of the security order in East Asia.

So, what does this mean for Japan?

Japan today seems to be the strongest supporter in the region for maintaining a US-led order in both the security and economic realms. After the short tenure of former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who served from September 2009 to June 2010, Japan lost its desire to be an architect of the regional order. Instead, Japan has focused on integrating its Asian policy with its bilateral relationship with the United States.

Japan has not always relied on US primacy in Asia. In the past Japan has emphasised the role of regional groups, including the ASEAN+3 and ASEAN+6 mechanisms. Japan also actively pursued its own bilateral diplomacy with Southeast Asian nations as part of the Fukuda doctrine, first established in 1977, which focused on building peaceful and cooperative relations with ASEAN members.

But during the last decade, Japanese foreign policymakers have increasingly viewed Japan’s relations with Southeast Asia through the prism of the US alliance. Regardless of the ruling party, Japanese foreign policy has clearly aimed to strengthen US leadership in the region.

To bolster the US alliance framework, Japan enhanced its security cooperation with most of the ASEAN countries, upgrading the substance of bilateral relations with ASEAN countries to include more robust defence exchange. Japan’s stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations — which it has prioritised above other economic partnerships in the region — also signifies its strong commitment to ensuring continued US engagement in the region. Tokyo policymakers have calculated that it is in their strategic interests to enhance the US position in the region. This view is perhaps more entrenched in Japan than in any other country, including Australia and the United States itself.

In April 2015, Japan and the United States published a new joint statement and updated guidelines on US–Japan defence cooperation, which emphasised bilateral and trilateral collaboration in security capacity-building efforts for Southeast Asian nations. Also, the Abe administration succeeded in a substantial deepening of Japan–India security cooperation, particularly in relation to defence and civil nuclear cooperation. This is indicative of how Japan has ‘securitised’ its Asian diplomacy.

Japan’s behaviour is aimed at complementing the so-called American ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia. But this shift in Japanese foreign policy actually predates the US pivot strategy — the first signals of this new foreign policy orientation started under the first Abe administration in 2006–7.

And tensions still remain between the US and Japanese approaches to security in East Asia. Japan is more assertive than its partners in its desire to guard against increasing Chinese influence and to address maritime challenges by implementing rules-based mechanisms. This stance is rooted in Japan’s perception of China, which has shifted in response to China’s growing political influence and the crises over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

While some elements of Japan’s traditional Asian diplomacy persist in its bilateral engagement, the increasingly prominent role given to security in Japan’s Asian diplomacy is the defining development of the last decade. The weight given to security concerns in Japan’s foreign policy has led Japanese diplomats to push for a common Japan–ASEAN stance on maritime disputes with China.

The expected role of ASEAN in Japan’s foreign policy vision is largely unchanged. Japan wants to encourage a strong ASEAN and promote the ASEAN community building process. In this sense, the legacy of the Fukuda doctrine continues. Even outside government circles, many Japanese specialists value the role of ASEAN in the regional architecture. Comparatively, Chinese policymakers and academics are, at times, more vocal in expressing their doubts over the importance and normative power of ASEAN.

As long as the majority of ASEAN members resist external pressure from any third party, promoting ASEAN will benefit Japan. This is because ASEAN can allow Japan to promote regionalism, while concurrently pursuing economic and security mechanisms that include the United States.

Japanese behaviour suggests that, in its own strategic re-calculation, maintaining American influence is the key to preserving the regional order. Tokyo recognises that Japanese power alone is insufficient to shape the regional order. It is therefore crucial for Japan to build coalitions with regional partners that have similar political objectives, such as Australia.

Japanese diplomacy towards East Asia has experienced a fundamental transformation. As part of this transformation, the strategic vision that underpins the US–Japan alliance has been stretched to underpin Japan’s diplomacy for the entire East Asian region. This extension of the logic of the US–Japan alliance undermines the ability of Japan to pursue a truly inclusive regional order. It is high time that Japanese foreign policy embraced the advantages of inclusive multilateralism.

Ryo Sahashi is an associate professor of International Politics, Kanagawa University and a research fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange.


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24 February 2016 10:09 am

The author of this analysis fails to note two of the potentially most important elements of Japan’s ‘transformation’ in its East Asia diplomacy and foreign policy: its reinterpretation of Article 9 of its Constitution and its policy of collective self defense.

In his desire for Japan to become ‘a normal country’ which can resort to the use of military force if/when it feels the need to do so PM Abe is trying to take what he believes is a series of steps towards Japan becoming more self reliant. Given the demographic and economic challenges the country has yet to solve it is not clear whether it can ever really play a larger role in the security issues of the region. Neither is it clear that its neighbors, remembering Japan’s aggression from 1931-1945, will welcome it doing so.