By Kei Koga —
At the end of his tour of Southeast Asia in August 1977, Japanese prime minister Takeo Fukuda promised that postwar Japan was “committed to peace, and rejects the role of a military power.” The year 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of this so-called Fukuda Doctrine.
Given the legacy of the Second World War, Southeast Asian capitals saw this promulgation as a reassurance that Japan would steer clear of any resurgent aggressiveness and instead seek to enhance mutual socio-cultural and economic cooperation. Over time, the Fukuda Doctrine has gone a long way toward alleviating historic animosities between the peoples of Japan and Southeast Asia.
Yet Tokyo’s relations with the region have now gone beyond these dimensions to include political and security cooperation as well. In recent decades, Japan has proactively supported the evolution of Southeast Asian regional architecture through its official development assistance, institution building centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and partner capacity building.
This progress is particularly important in the current strategic transition period. Given the uncertainty occasioned by China’s rise, Southeast Asia could once again become a theater for great power politics.
History shows that a weak or divided Southeast Asia tends to invite external interference – such as past colonial rivalries between Japan and Western powers leading up to World War II, as well as the U.S.-Soviet-China triangle in the Cold War.
On the other hand, a strong and unified Southeast Asia can help regional states become vital players in blunting such geopolitical competition.
At times, ASEAN has shown the limits of its ability to defend the regional rules-based order. Individual Southeast Asian states thus need to strengthen their political stability, economic strength, and military capabilities. Meanwhile, ASEAN needs to be the fabric that keeps Southeast Asia bound together.
Because it has nurtured a benign reputation among Southeast Asian states, Japan is well-placed to help strengthen both Southeast Asia’s material capabilities and ASEAN’s diplomatic centrality.
Given their growing interconnectedness and interdependence, Japan and ASEAN must craft a new vision statement that recalibrates their relationship. They should champion a future regional order based on common rules, norms, and principles like respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
Tokyo should also promote a “coalition of the willing” within Southeast Asia that is committed to actively supporting the establishment of the ASEAN “rules-based community.” This might further widen gaps within ASEAN, which is home to diverse political systems and levels of prosperity. Nevertheless, those who step up can become role models for political development in the region.
Maintaining the rules-based order demands that compliance with international law and norms be closely monitored. To this end, Japan and ASEAN should establish a regional monitoring center where they can store and access information about disputes like those in the South China Sea.
Of course, enforcement is difficult to achieve in any international institution, and because of its consensus decision-making design ASEAN has basically lacked such mechanisms. Japan should therefore focus on enhancing its existing capacity building efforts to strengthen Southeast Asian states’ maritime domain awareness and hard power capabilities.
This could include providing more education and training programs, offering more coast guard assets, and negotiating military acquisition and procurement agreements. These programs should be coordinated between Japan and other partners.
The United States has been the pivotal player in shaping the East Asian order, and it is important that Japan and Southeast Asia seek to lock in its commitment to the region to prevent any abrupt strategic shifts. However, while the United States’ long-term interest in East Asia is strong, its frequent shifts in short-term focus tend to create insecurity. This is especially the case under the Trump administration.
To alleviate such uncertainties, Japan should bridge perception gaps through regular information sharing with the United States and ASEAN.
Finally, despite existing disagreements between China and regional states, the best scenario is still China’s continuous engagement in the region without any coercive or fait accompli behavior. Rather than engage in tit-for-tat escalation, Japan and ASEAN should lead by example by demonstrating self-restraint.
Japan and Southeast Asian states have come a long way toward facilitating peace, stability, and prosperity since the 1970s. It is now high time to transcend the Fukuda Doctrine. They now have the political space to look beyond Japan-Southeast Asia relations toward a wider regional partnership.
Dr. Kei Koga is Assistant Professor at the Public Policy & Global Affairs Programme, School of Social Sciences of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In 2017, he was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Koga’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign and economic policy.