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Japan vies with China for ASEAN's favour

The Straits Times | Pavin Chachavalpongpun | Saturday, Apr 12, 2014

Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking during a joint news conference at the Istana on 26 July 2013. Mr Abe was in Singapore as part of a three-country South-east Asia tour.

Early last month, the Japan Foundation announced plans to send about 3,000 assistant Japanese language teachers to the 10 members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) by 2020. Scheduled to begin this month, the 30 billion yen (S$367 million) project will recruit university students and senior citizens to teach in local secondary schools.

The move, said the foundation, is aimed at deepening ties between Japan and ASEAN members. An initial group of language teachers is due to leave for Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines in September.

Japan has enjoyed amicable relations with ASEAN since it was granted dialogue partner status in 1977 - the year the Fukuda Doctrine, designed to strengthen relations with South-east Asia, was launched. But unlike other key partners of ASEAN, Japan has been constrained by the need to invest its primary diplomatic energy in its relationship with the United States. From Japan's perspective, this was a foreign policy imperative it could not ignore. So, while ASEAN was an important partner, it was not a strategic one.

Lately, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has been paying more attention to South-east Asia.

The announcement by the Japan Foundation, for example, came after Mr Abe and ASEAN leaders held a special summit in Tokyo last December.

Mr Abe visited Naypyidaw in May last year, marking the first time a Japanese prime minister had been to Myanmar in 36 years. During his visit, Japan agreed to write off nearly US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) in debt and extended new aid to help promote an industrial zone being developed by Japanese companies in Myanmar.

Mr Abe also renewed Japan's ties with Cambodia and Laos, travelling to Phnom Penh and Vientiane last November. He promised substantial financial and technical assistance to the two South-east Asian nations, thus reaffirming Japan's eagerness to cultivate a more meaningful partnership with them.

Similarly, Japanese private companies have also set up new production bases in Vietnam and Indonesia - ASEAN's two emerging economies.

Yet closer examination suggests that it is China, not South- east Asia, which has been the determining factor behind Japan's renewed enthusiasm in regional affairs. Japan's proactive role in South-east Asia and ASEAN regionalism was a foreign policy response to the rise of China and its growing foothold in the region.

Overcoming China's influence in South-east Asia has, however, proven difficult. China has long pursued a more aggressive approach to relations with ASEAN. In the words of Singapore's Mr Lee Kuan Yew: "It has become the norm in South-east Asia for China to take the lead and Japan to tag along. Since Japan is unable to recover its economy, it has no choice but to allow China to take the initiative."

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