Japan-ASEAN Summit Highlights Different Stances on China

Pool photo / Reuters
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on Sunday.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made clear his intention to strengthen security-related cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a Japan-ASEAN special summit.

Speaking on Sunday, Kishida’s remarks apparently were aimed at countering China’s ongoing maritime expansion in the East and South China seas.

However, some countries in ASEAN place high priority on relations with China, and Japan must take steps to resolve Beijing-related differences and formulate trustful relationship with ASEAN members.

“We have a vision of a world where the principles of democracy, rule of law, good governance, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are protected,” Kishida said during a press conference following the summit.

While the Japanese leader did not specifically name China, his comments suggested he wants to counter Beijing in cooperation with ASEAN.

A joint post-summit statement included a vision of promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and called for focusing on “strengthening security cooperation, including maritime security cooperation.”

Since assuming office in October 2021, Kishida had worked to smooth the way for the summit through such measures as meetings with leaders of ASEAN countries.

Kishida’s desire to expand security cooperation with ASEAN is reflected in Japan’s establishment of a new “official security assistance” program for countries involved in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

However, he refrained from overtly criticizing China in the wording of the joint statement, primarily due to differences among the way member countries deal with Beijing, with the Philippines and Vietnam being wary of China, while Cambodia and Laos lean on that country for economic support, among other fields.

Cambodia and Laos specifically opposed the inclusion of language that criticized China in the joint statement. For this reason, when listing priority areas for cooperation in the joint statement, Japan showed its consideration for Cambodia and Laos by prioritizing interpersonal exchanges and economic cooperation over “peace and stability,” which centers on security issues.

The term “co-creation” also was included in the joint statement, as Japan views the creation of equal-partner ties as being key to strengthening relations with ASEAN.

Tokyo intends to continue responding to the needs of ASEAN member countries to further strengthen tie-ups.

“The era in which Japan unilaterally provides support for ASEAN is over,” Kyushu University Prof. Kazushi Shimizu said. “To deepen relations, it’s important to [for members to] mutually benefit by learning about and responding to challenges together.”