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Geopolitical Signals of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Visits to ASEAN

After taking office, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has continued to push for a free and open Indo-Pacific. For his first overseas state visit, Yoshihide Suga chose Vietnam and Indonesia instead of the United States, unlike previous prime ministers. Although there could have been several reasons for this, one of which is related to the situation of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. That being said, it is definitely a mistake to think that Japan is taking a different path from the United States when it promotes a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Yoshihide Suga’s latest move should be understood as enriching the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, making it compatible and applicable to ASEAN member states. Judging from his state visits to Vietnam and Indonesia, Japan has shown a good understanding of the situation in the ASEAN region. With Vietnam as the first stop of Suga’s state visit, this has in fact expressed Japan’s appreciation for Vietnam’s recent tough stance on the South China Sea dispute with China. Vietnam, the chair of ASEAN this year, is pushing ASEAN to adopt a unified position on this issue. At the same time, Suga’s visit to Indonesia shows that Japan attaches importance to Indonesia’s influence in promoting ASEAN’s foreign strategy, especially in promoting the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

Suga did not hesitate to emphasize compatibility during his visits to Vietnam and Indonesia. In a public speech at the Vietnam Japan University in Hanoi, as well as in the official disclosure of the discussions between Suga and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Suga expressed Japan’s support for AOIP. Suga placed his emphasis on the common principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific and AOIP in their respective plans, namely respect for the rule of law, openness, freedom, transparency, and tolerance. This effectively projects Japan as a nation that looks forward to building a peaceful and prosperous future with ASEAN countries in accordance with these basic values.

It is worth noting that respect for the rule of law is still the most important of all common values. Suga called for international law as the basis for the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea. This statement is in stark contrast to the outspoken criticism of China by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in early October. By not explicitly mentioning China, the approach of Japan is consistent with ASEAN’s long-standing expression that it has not singled out China’s central position in the South China Sea dispute. It is precisely because of this “soft” discourse on the South China Sea dispute that Japan is more willing as compared to the United States to deepen cooperation with ASEAN countries and safeguard international law in Southeast Asia.

In terms of practicality, Japan is clearly extending a helping hand to Vietnam and Indonesia in an attempt to carry out mutually beneficial economic and defense cooperation. Japan sees Vietnam as the third country to diversify its supply chain outside of China (i.e. relocation of Japanese companies from the Chinese market). Japan is Vietnam’s second-largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), and Suga’s visit to Vietnam is considered to be an effort to deepen Japan-Vietnam economic cooperation; the highlight of this effort is that the two countries have signed memorandums of understanding on energy projects.

For Indonesia, Japan is seeking to participate in the construction of Jakarta’s mass rapid transit network, to increase the speed of trains in North Java, to help operate and develop the Patimban Deep Sea Port, and so on. This means that Japan is attempting to realize its free and open Indo-Pacific aims by expanding high-quality infrastructure construction. Japan’s participation in these infrastructure projects is not just to take advantage of Indonesia’s huge infrastructure needs, but to emphasize that its technology and experience are beneficial to ASEAN countries, including its openness, transparency, economic efficiency, and debt sustainability.

In the field of defense cooperation, Japan has now eliminated the last obstacle to its foreign arms exports. After previous arms sales to Malaysia and the Philippines, arms exports will be one of Japan’s future priorities. During his visit to Vietnam, Suga and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc agreed to formulate a basic agreement to allow Japan to sell its defense equipment and technology to Vietnam as part of a new area of cooperation between the two countries. Similarly, during the meeting between Suga and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the two sides also agreed to speed up negotiations to allow Japan to export arms to Jakarta in the near future. Undoubtedly, all these defense equipment and technologies have played a role in enhancing the military capabilities of certain ASEAN countries.

With the advent of the Biden era, the United States will adjust its diplomatic strategy and foreign policy. The United States will move away from “America First” and unilateralism, and return to diplomacy that emphasizes alliances and multilateralism. The U.S.-Japan alliance is crucial to stability in the region, and it will be valued in the Biden era. On the one hand, the United States will strengthen the alliance between the two countries based on values and geopolitical interests; on the other hand, the United States will not adopt aggressive policies on the issue of trade between the United States and Japan like the previous U.S. administration.

Relations with China will be an unavoidable and important issue in U.S.-Japan relations. Together with Japan, the United States will adopt the dual-approach of both cooperating and restraining China in the transformation of its strategy towards China. It should also be noted that if the relationship between the United States and China deteriorates any further, this will also harm Japan’s interests. Therefore, the improvement of U.S.-China relations is in the interest of Japan. In this regard, Japan has room to play a constructive role.