Japan and ASEAN: Draw on Trust Cultivated over Past 50 years

Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have marked the 50th anniversary of the start of exchanges between the two sides. Their relationship of trust should be deepened, so as to contribute to mutual development and stability in the region.

Japan and ASEAN held a special summit in Tokyo to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their friendship and adopted a joint statement outlining the direction of cooperation in a wide range of areas, including the economy and security.

The key feature of the statement is that it sets forth the concept of “co-creation,” in which Japan and ASEAN work together as equal partners to create a prosperous economy and society, instead of Tokyo unilaterally providing assistance to ASEAN.

The total population of the 10 ASEAN member countries is 680 million, and the average age is young. Their economic growth is remarkable, and there are forecasts that the economic scale of the region as a whole will exceed Japan’s gross domestic product around the year 2030.

It is essential for Japan to tap into this growing market and help its further growth through investment and technological assistance, thereby strengthening mutually beneficial relations.

At the summit, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed his intention to invest more than $35 billion (about ¥4.9 trillion) in ASEAN over the next five years, from both the public and private sectors, in such areas as measures against climate change and infrastructure development. The prime minister also expressed the idea of working together on a strategy to make ASEAN a production base for next-generation vehicles.

The two sides will also establish a people-to-people exchange program that will involve more than 10 million people over the next 10 years. The aim is to deepen understanding by learning each other’s language and cultural education.

Japan and ASEAN affirmed 130 specific items for cooperation, including those in the areas of decarbonization, tourism, agriculture, and maritime security. They need to be steadily implemented.

Cooperation between Japan and ASEAN dates back to 1973, when a ministerial meeting was held over trade friction caused by Japan’s synthetic rubber exports. Since around that time, Japan has supported the bloc with official development assistance.

In 1977, then Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda announced the so-called Fukuda Doctrine, a set of diplomatic principles with ASEAN that included such messages as “heart-to-heart understanding” and “equal partners,” drawing high praise from each country.

The trusting relations Japan has cultivated through this history are a great asset for the country.

Meanwhile, China has been strengthening its influence in ASEAN in recent years through massive investment. Many ASEAN countries are economically dependent on China. For this reason, the joint statement refrained from criticizing China, which is increasing its expansion into the South China Sea.

However, there is also a strong sense of caution regarding China over “debt traps” in which Beijing gets a country laden with debt and receives security benefits in exchange for repayment. It is important for Japan to further strengthen its ties with ASEAN through fair, transparent trade and investment.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 19, 2023)