By Nobuhiro Aizawa
Southeast Asia, with a population of more than 620 million and a growing working-age middle class, is beginning to reap the benefits of its demographic dividend. Southeast Asia’s total gross domestic product (GDP) was $2.3 trillion in 2012, bigger than India’s, and 12.5 percent of the total GDP of Asia, making it one of the largest and fastest-growing markets in the world. The development of supply chain linkages in the region has increased intraregional interdependence in Southeast Asia and multilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) have also helped to connect it to other parts of the world.
Southeast Asia occupies a critical strategic geopolitical location in the Asia-Pacific’s maritime and aviation networks. It lies at the crossroads of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean and astride key global sea lanes and chokepoints, such as the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. Each year $5.3 trillion worth of shipping passes through the waterways of Southeast Asia. In addition, Bangkok and Singapore function as key hub airports connecting passengers traveling to and from Oceania, Northeast Asia, and South Asia. In terms of international passenger traffic in 2013, Singapore and Bangkok rank numbers five and eight in the world, respectively. A well-connected Asia-Pacific, or Indo-Pacific, is not possible without an open and active Southeast Asia.
In 2013, Japan made clear Southeast Asia’s strategic importance when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited 10 Southeast Asian countries in a single year, a first not only for a Japanese prime minister, but for all non-ASEAN leaders. This ASEAN-focused diplomacy culminated in the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit in December 2013, in which Japan and ASEAN released a joint statement announcing: “We recognized the important role that ASEAN and Japan could play to address regional and global challenges and exchanged our views on issues of common interests.”
Japan should have four goals in Southeast Asia. First, Japan should seek to build a stronger Southeast Asia. This strategic goal is important for two reasons. First, it is crucial that Southeast Asia be a stable and prosperous region for its own wellbeing. Second, a stronger Southeast Asia would make Asia as a whole more balanced, stable, and prosperous.
Japan’s second goal should be to reinforce its status as Southeast Asia’s legitimate partner. In other words, Japan needs to gain legitimacy by leading and being endorsed by its partners and neighbors. The competition today is not simply over power itself, but a more subtle competition for legitimacy, which defines the way states use their accumulated power.
Japan’s third goal relates to the classic phrase: “Foreign policy begins at home.” Japan’s strategy is best accomplished by satisfying domestic needs, which is why Southeast Asia is likely to matter more as Japan faces the demographic challenges of an aging society. Southeast Asia and Japan share stable relations and close partnerships that are only likely to grow in the decades to come.
Japan’s fourth goal acknowledges that as it is neither the economic giant it was 30 years ago, nor a military powerhouse, it is crucial to redefine Japan’s role in Southeast Asia and the broader global society. Japanese diplomats should seek to build a “resilient society” in Southeast Asia and the broader region.
In pursuit of these goals, Japan’s strategy for strengthening Southeast Asia should be to enhance “four resiliencies” in Southeast Asia: economic, political, environmental, and security. In each of these areas, Japan can make a critical contribution. Economic resilience needs to be enhanced to address challenges to Southeast Asia’s economies, such as economic disparities. Political resilience can be supported through enhancing its welfare system and promoting its liberal democracy (i.e., political accountability, free media access, freedom of speech, respect for minority rights, and prohibition of xenophobic policies). Environmental resilience can help to address the main threats to human life in Southeast Asia, which have been environmental disasters. Finally, security resilience is necessary to maintain Southeast Asia as an open and stable economy, especially given the changing power balance in the region.
In conclusion, the U.S.-Japan alliance could offer what is needed in Southeast Asia and vice versa. Both allies agree on the strategic importance of Southeast Asia, and thus should not hesitate to cooperate in securing stability and sustainable growth in that region. Southeast Asia is now entering the golden decade of its demographic dividend. This era has already passed in Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Thus, if we are to expect a prosperous Asia in the decades ahead, Southeast Asia is the key to this promising path. Pursuing areas of common ground with Southeast Asia’s rising middle class, establishing a resilient social system in the region, and confronting numerous common challenges (such as natural disasters and other nontraditional security issues) are crucial for Southeast Asia’s future as well as that of Japan and the United States.
Dr. Nobuhiro Aizawa is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies at Kyushu University and a visiting scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Dr. Aizawa’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.