Abe's Assertive Strategy Divides ASEAN Governments

http://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Geopolitico/Abe-s-assertive-strategy-divides-ASEAN-governments | 作者: Chongkittavorn | 时间: 2015-09-23 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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Kavi Chongkittavorn



Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's determination to push through controversial security legislation creates a dilemma for the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.


     These countries have come to expect a calmer, more consensus-based approach from Japan; Abe's strategy may have serious implications for Japan's relationship with ASEAN as a whole, and for its ties with individual member states. At the same time, Abe's policy presents an opportunity for ASEAN to play a central role in mediating regional tensions.


      Most ASEAN countries had terrible experiences during World War II. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar (then known as Burma) were invaded by Japan. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, then part of French Indochina, were occupied when the colony was ceded to Japan after France's defeat. Thailand's autocratic government declared war on the Allies under Japanese pressure, and became the scene of fighting between Japanese troops and pro-Allied partisans.


      Despite their wartime ordeals, all these countries have come to terms with the past, and with modern Japan, thanks to decades of hard work on both sides. This has re-established a high degree of mutual trust, buttressed by Tokyo's pacifist approach since 1945. In particular, Japan's constitutional bar on military action overseas helped to create confidence in Southeast Asia about the country's long-term agenda.


Stoking anxiety


Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and ASEAN in 1977, Japanese financial and technical assistance has been a crucial element in the infrastructure development that has spurred dramatic economic growth in Southeast Asia. Japan's "heart-to-heart" diplomacy under former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda also helped to create ASEAN in its current form, by promoting rapprochement between the noncommunist countries that had allied themselves with the Western powers during the Cold War and the former communist states of Indochina.


     Abe's security legislation will change the nature of Japan's engagement with Southeast Asia, allowing it for the first time since World War II to dispatch armed forces overseas and take part in international military missions. For ASEAN, this raises difficult questions.


     The issue is not the presence of Japanese troops itself: Japan's 1993 dispatch of unarmed soldiers and police to join a United Nations mission in Cambodia, where they helped to restore order and prevent further conflict, was well-received. But Abe's unyielding approach to the security legislation, in spite of strong public protests in Japan, has caused great anxiety among some ASEAN members, many of which are unprepared for a Japan with an assertive defense posture and policies.


     Yet, as with many issues facing ASEAN, there are striking differences of opinion. Vietnam and the Philippines have responded enthusiastically to Abe's strategy. Both countries have already strengthened their security and maritime cooperation with Japan, which is in turn a close ally of the U.S. These closer relationships will strengthen the region's capacity to defend itself. However, since Manila and Hanoi both have territorial claims in the South China Sea that overlap with claims by Beijing, their actions will be seen to be aimed at China. This is a development that Beijing will not take lightly.


     More discreetly, some ASEAN countries have adopted a wait-and-see attitude as they ponder how to respond to Japan's new security orientation without disrupting their relations with China. They do not want to be dragged into the rivalry between Japan and China in either the economic or the security fields.


Changing environment


Underlying these different approaches, however, is a common view: ASEAN recognizes that Japan's new defense posture is a response to a changing strategic environment exemplified by uncertainty around the Korean Peninsula, the rise of China and other powers, including Russia and India, and the heightened tension emanating from overlapping territorial claims in the East and South China seas. All these developments are prompting Japan to seek stronger strategic cooperation with countries in the region, in addition to its traditional reliance on the U.S., while continuing to proclaim its commitment to peaceful coexistence.


     ASEAN cannot be seen to be choosing sides; that would undermine a whole range of relationships and assumptions that underpin the existing security architecture of the region. However, the range of opinion among member states does provide an opportunity for ASEAN to take the lead in dealing with the fallout from Abe's constitutional changes.


     Thailand has pressed for such an approach, arguing that it is in the interests of member countries to allow ASEAN to take center stage on regional issues such as this, especially when it comes to discussions with major powers. ASEAN leaders will have a key opportunity at the upcoming East Asia summit in Kuala Lumpur in November, when the 10 ASEAN heads of government will meet their counterparts from eight other countries, including Japan, the U.S., China, India and Russia.


     The ASEAN leaders should develop and present a coordinated view of regional and global security issues, and to press the major powers to commit themselves -- individually and collectively -- to settle any future conflicts by peaceful means. Such an agreement would go a long way toward securing ASEAN's professed core objective of transforming Southeast Asia into a zone of peace, neutrality and stability.





Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a visiting scholar at the China Institute of International Studies.


Source: http://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Geopolitico/Abe-s-assertive-strategy-divides-ASEAN-governments, September 18, 2015.