19.11.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japanese Prime Minister’s recent tour in Southeast Asian nations

Fumio Kishida, Prime Minister of Japan, conducted a second quick tour of the Southeast Asian sub-region from November 3 to November 5. Malaysia and the Philippines were the nations that were visited this time. Tokyo’s priority on fortifying its position in the sub-region as a whole was reaffirmed by the tour, even if specific bilateral concerns were discussed in each of these countries.

Tokyo, for its part, views that as a crucial middle link in the larger “south-westward movement” of Japanese foreign policy, which has been noticed for a long time by the NEO. Africa, the Persian Gulf region, and India and the Indian Ocean region in general are all being influenced during this phase.

We would like to emphasize once again that Japan’s current foreign policy strategy is by no means a new development in the decades following World War II. It was quite clearly announced at the beginning of the last century as the process of the country’s emergence from self-isolation, launched at the turn of the 1960s-70s of the 19th century, the Meiji Restoration, developed, with further transformation of the country into one of the main players of global world processes.

In the 1930s, a highly productive idea was born in relation to SEA, as to how to win these positions to the full satisfaction of “interested parties”.  It is called the Flying Geese Paradigm. Kaname Akamatsu, its author, suggested a three-phase structure for the growth of relationships between the “lead goose” and those who are economically behind, the underdeveloped “geese” of the united flock. The militarist wing of the Japanese elite at the time ruined everything with its “simplistic solutions” to intricate global issues. That ultimately led the country to disaster.

The aforementioned “Paradigm” was in fact already in place during the postwar era, when Japan’s rapid economic expansion and recovery process started to take place internationally. This paradigm has had a significant influence on the phenomena of the rise of the “four Asian tigers”—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. We emphasize once more the critical role that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Official Development Assistance (ODA) program, which was established in 1954, played in bolstering and reestablishing Japan’s standing among the Southeast Asian nations. China’s economic development was greatly aided by the fact that trade and economic ties were put in place with Japan even before formal diplomatic ties were established.

But Japan today is considerably different from the Japan of seventy years ago, when the nation was only starting to recover from the many wounds caused by the devastating defeat in World War II since it is approaching the last stages of “normalization,” or “becoming like everyone else.” Including, most importantly, the defense and security domains, for which the government approved a new “National Security Strategy” for the following ten years in December 2022.

This document proves to be a crucial step in the process of gradually tying Japan’s military might and defense industry potential to the resolution of the related problem of bolstering its standing in the international policy domain. Specifically, the acceptance of the aforementioned “Strategy” led directly to the appearance in April of this year of an additional document (Official Security Assistance, OSA) that was related to security and was comparable to the ODA. In other words, Japan intends to persist in its pursuit of fortifying its foreign policy stance by relying not only on the OSA but also on the ODA.

As a matter of fact, one of the primary outcomes of Fumio Kishida’s trip to the Philippines was the application of the OSA for the first time in Japan-Philippines ties, a development that is becoming increasingly significant for Japan. Specifically, this was verified once more when Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. visited Tokyo in February of this year.

In the presence of Fumio Kishida and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Ambassador of Japan to the Philippines and the second secretary of the Foreign Ministry exchanged notes on November 3, initiating the OSA’s implementation to date for a relatively small sum of 600 million yen (just over $4 million). According to the remarks, the funds would go toward buying radar, small patrol boats, and other items from Japan. It should be mentioned that the Philippine Border Guard Service, which recently found itself in conflict with a similar service of the People’s Republic of China in several disputed areas of the South China Sea, is in dire need of this kind of military hardware.

Despite its small size, this agreement might be seen as the beginning of the Japanese government’s policy of removing trade barriers for its defense industry products in international markets. This is also a crucial element of the recently unveiled “National Security Strategy”.

Another inked agreement states that Japan will provide the Philippines with much-needed bulldozers and other equipment for disaster assistance, primarily related to the country’s periodic typhoon attacks, for a slightly higher price.

As Fumio Kishida was visiting the Philippines, news broke of the start of joint drills between US and Philippine Marines and troops of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF). Though not a new drill between the United States and the Philippines, this one is the first in which the SDF’s scenario includes “defense of coastal zones and islands.”

Again, the dispute over the ownership of some of these islands in the South China Sea has already resulted in some incidents involving Philippine and Chinese border vessels. Consequently, it makes sense that the latter reacted negatively to the Japanese prime minister’s visit as well as to the aforementioned exercises and those that are scheduled for the next year.

There was nothing akin to this kind of defiance toward the PRC during Fumio Kishida’s visit to Malaysia in the second leg of his tour that was discussed. However, the subject of launching an OSA program was also raised here. Under the “Security and Defense Cooperation” portion of the agenda, it is discussed together the Japanese visitor and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

This is significant evidence of Japan’s expanding spheres of influence in Southeast Asia. Up until now, the country has been “balancing” somewhere around the naturally occurring, conventional “neutral line” between the two poles of gravity, which are the PRC and the US and its allies. Unlike, for example, the Philippines. Although the nation’s leadership continues to claim that it is “balancing” its foreign policy, in reality, it is going back to the de facto alliance connections with the second “pole” that were prevalent during the Cold War.

Finally, let us notice that Fumio Kishida’s trip was undertaken in conjunction with Tokyo’s events commemorating the approaching 50th anniversary of the date (early December) on which official relations between Japan and ASEAN were established, which is an important (though increasingly symbolic) motivation for the trip.

Even while the expert community is becoming more skeptical of this organization’s existing (actual) role in regional affairs, Tokyo is still exerting a lot of effort to compete with other major players—China being the primary one, of course—for influence over it.

Once more, though, we point out that Japan’s unique interest in the Southeast Asian sub-region—given Tokyo’s status as one of the major players in the current Great World Game—will endure regardless of ASEAN’s continued existence.

This was the primary reason for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent visit to Malaysia and the Philippines.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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