Japan in the Indo-Pacific: Investing in Partnerships in South and Southeast Asia

Special Paper August, 2022

Executive Summary:

  • China’s engagement in the Southeast Asian region has been a fulcrum for change.
  • Tokyo perceives Chinese behavior to be a threat to the rules-based order that has been the foundation of stability and development in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Tokyo sees Beijing’s diplomacy in ASEAN as one characterized by a pattern of fracturing ASEAN’s unity on issues that Beijing considers critical to its core interests.
  • Tokyo views the BRI as a geo-economic project aimed at reconfiguring Asian’s regionalism away from one centered on ASEAN-centrality to one that creates a hierarchical and interdependent economic order extending from China throughout the Eurasian continent.
  • Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision (FOIP) is meant to provide a rules-based alternative to China’s efforts to reshape Asia’s regionalism into a modern-day Sino-centric regional order with Beijing at its apex.
  • FOIP focuses on building a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, Japan has prioritized economic integration, infrastructure, and development along the littoral states of Indo-Pacific as well as ASEAN centrality in order to inculcate stability, sustainability and a shared vision of the region.
  • Japanese investment in Southeast Asia by Japan is meant to strengthen each country’s capability to provide for their own security but also to enhance their intra-regional economic integration so they have more strategic autonomy when making a choice about the SCS or other diplomatic decisions involving China.
  • Japan has expanded its strategic horizon by launching its broad strategic vision, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), since 2016. This foreign policy doctrine aims at maintaining and enhancing the existing international order, which the United States has played the pivotal role in constructing and Japan has benefitted from economically, militarily, and diplomatically.
  • Japan approaches each Southeast Asian state to continuously understand their diplomatic posture, socio-economic needs, and domestic political constraints. This is particularly useful in determining what economic and military assistance should be allocated in each state and what diplomatic agendas Japan should emphasize.
  • The Japanese version of the FOIP concept was shaped by incorporating ASEAN’s concerns, there has been a natural synthesis in principles between the FOIP and AOIP.
  • FOIP and AOIP are functionally synchronized, and this trend is likely to remain as most of the existing regional cooperation and projects are based on their strategic objectives.
  • Hanoi gradually diversified its foreign relations beyond the communist bloc and formed partnerships with multiple states regardless of their political system and ideology.
  • While Hanoi’s careful balance between Washington and Beijing often attracts attention from Vietnam observers, Hanoi has also cultivated a special partnership with another regional power, Japan.
  • Tokyo recently emerged as a new security partner to Vietnam, supporting Hanoi’s struggle against Beijing in the South China Sea through maritime capacity-building assistance.
  • Vietnam and Japan should consider investing more resources in collaboration projects that are in line with Vietnam’s 10-year socio-economic development strategy to bolster the strategic partnership.
  • Japan’s further investment in Vietnam’s digital connectivity will help Hanoi address its domestic shortcomings and make it a more versatile partner.
  • Tokyo and Hanoi should increase finance for infrastructure and accelerate cooperation in human resources development.
  • Tokyo and Hanoi should coordinate their efforts at regional organizations such as ASEAN.
  • The South China Seas have become a critical hotspot for brewing conflict between China and the United States.
  • Southeast Asia states recognize they require extra-regional assistance to address their comprehensive maritime challenges.
  • Japan is Southeast Asia’s vanguard partner in dealing with maritime challenges in the South China Sea.
  • The Southeast Asia China waters are home to traditional and non-traditional security threats including sea robbery; smuggling; human trafficking; illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, etc.
  • Japan is the most trusted extra-regional power in Southeast Asia.
  • Southeast Asians see Japan as an attractive “third option,” an extra-regional power that is neither the United States nor China. Partnering with Japan reduces the ramifications of being drawn into security dilemmas and other traps associated with being perceived to pick sides in a great power competition.
  • India and Japan are deeply concerned about China’s growing influence and military presence and the threat this poses to their security.
  • Both India and Japan focus on connectivity and development in the region is directly aimed at countering Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and coordinating a response to its regional ambitions.
  • India-Japan cooperation is fundamentally driven by both states’ ambitions and plans for outreach to the broader region—including Southeast Asia and the Bay of Bengal countries.
  • India-Japan partnership should look at economic development through infrastructure and connectivity projects, energy security, science and technology, maritime security, disaster management, risk management, tourism, and more.
  • Japan and India have vested interest in contributing to the regional maritime security and stability of the Bay of Bengal, particularly considering the important Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) the region houses.

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