Japan’s assertive foreign policy can start in Southeast Asia

SPDEL-FREEPIK

“UKRAINE today may be East Asia tomorrow,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told an international security gathering in Singapore, a catchphrase that speaks to the harsh lessons learnt over the past few months. Better deterrence and response capabilities, he told a room packed with defense officials and diplomats, will be “absolutely essential if Japan is to learn to survive in the new era and keep speaking out as a standard-bearer of peace.” Cranking up rhetoric, though, is the easy part.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has jolted the pacifist nation into making bigger promises on spending, security, and a foreign policy that relies on more than economics — welcome news for allies eager to have a muscular Japan discouraging provocations from its nuclear-armed neighbors. Tokyo now needs to overcome what remains of domestic resistance, free up funds, and strengthen alliances, and fast. But this “courteous power” can already use diplomatic tools to do more for the “rules-based free and open international order” that Kishida talked up at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday. He could do worse than to start in Southeast Asia. It’s a region that, like much of the emerging world, has largely distanced itself from allies’ response to President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, and where Japan has more credibility than most.

Ukraine has made even Tokyo’s most ardent pacifists realize that a totally unprovoked war is not a distant prospect. It’s a tough neighborhood: North Korean missiles, Russian saber-rattling around islets it says are part of its Kuril chain and Japan calls its Northern Territories, and tensions in the East China Sea — never mind the dramatic consequences of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Joint military exercises by Russia and China have done little to ease nerves. Little wonder that even if an overhaul of Japan’s constitutional article forbidding “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential,” remains unlikely, public opinion is shifting, and limits are becoming more flexible, with counterstrike capabilities now up for discussion. Even Kishida, whose family hails from Hiroshima and is less hawkish than others in his party, is pledging a substantial increase in defense spending, a step further from the pacifist mindset of recent decades.

Even so, it will be challenging to move quickly at home. Kishida gave no specifics, but an increase in the defense budget to 2% of gross domestic product, or NATO levels, as his party has proposed — roughly doubling the current share — may be a tough sell in practice, given post-pandemic demands and already stretched public finances. Kishida can still add manpower to the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan’s military is known, bolster missile defense and cybersecurity (a major concern), while working on strengthening the alliance with America — though Kishida has, for now, pushed aside nuclear sharing, or the possibility of hosting US nuclear weapons on Japanese soil.

But Japan, which has already broken with precedent by accepting refugees and sending bulletproof vests to Ukraine, can take other steps to protect not just itself but the rules-based order it depends on, with more forceful diplomatic efforts to help widen the alliance of nations condemning Russia’s aggression and pushing to isolate its economy. Southeast Asia is a good place to begin.

With the exception of Singapore, which has imposed unilateral sanctions for the first time in more than four decades, the region has largely sought to remain neutral in the conflict. That’s due in equal parts to the power of Russian weapons exports, deep-seated anti-Western sentiment, Soviet-era ties, disinformation — and of course diplomatic disengagement on the part of the wealthy world, not to mention sheer distance. Just a day after Kishida addressed the Singapore gathering, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, whose country has refused Ukraine’s request for weapons, defended what he called strategic neutrality, with a reference to former South African leader Nelson Mandela’s comment when asked in a US interview about Cuba’s Fidel Castro: “Your enemy is not necessarily my enemy.” It’s a position Russia is exploiting as the food crisis worsens, which will be used to weaken support for Ukraine as the war grinds on. And it’s an issue the West is not doing enough to tackle.

Southeast Asia is important, not just as a grouping of important emerging economies but because this year, it has the global spotlight: Indonesia chairs the G20, which will meet in Bali in November, and Thailand will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s economic leaders summit. So it matters when Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN, joins with Indonesia and Thailand to issue a statement on their respective meetings that skirts the small matter of  a war of conquest entirely, in favor of working “with all partners and stakeholders.”

Japan is already engaged with the region and in his first months, Kishida has visited Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore, and welcomed Malaysia’s prime minister in Tokyo. It’s also the region’s most trusted partner, not to mention a leading investor. But as with its investment, diplomatic efforts have been patient and understated, and far more is needed. There is an uncomfortable colonial past and officials will be dealing with reluctant and distracted governments — Indonesia, for one, is already beginning to look ahead to a 2024 election. It will also have to steer away from values conversations around political systems. Singapore’s defense minister is right that there will be “few takers for a battle royale on that basis.”

But stronger economic ties will help, as will military supplies to reduce dependence on Russia, not to mention coordinating food aid and support where needed as the conflict in Ukraine fuels a surge in prices and hunger. Persistent diplomacy too. Avoiding another aggressor trampling over smaller neighbors demands it.

BLOOMBERG OPINION

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