The Government of Japan

A Remarkable Relationship at 50

The leaders of the ASEAN members and Japan will convene in Tokyo on December 16 to 18 for the Commemorative Summit for the 50th Year of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation.

Page 1

Placing the Relationship in Context

Dialogue between ASEAN and Japan gained important momentum in 1973, when Japan and ASEAN agreed to establish a forum on Japanese exports of synthetic rubber. That forum was a framework for fortifying the ASEAN members’ natural rubber business amid growing demand for synthetic rubber. It presaged what has become extensive ASEAN-Japan cooperation in advancing mutual interests through a remarkable relationship. On the following pages are examples of how Japan is working with ASEAN partners today to deploy advanced technology in optimizing cybersecurity, maritime safety, fishery, and mobility. Preceding those examples here is an overview by two authorities on ASEAN-Japan relations, Kitaoka Shinichi and Oba Mie.

Ensuring an Increasingly Beneficial Presence

“Japan’s postwar economic engagement with ASEAN took hold initially,” reflects Kitaoka, “with reparations and official development assistance. That included building infrastructure, which laid the groundwork for investment by Japanese companies. The Japanese companies that established a presence in the ASEAN members were mainly export-oriented manufacturers. They generated a lot of employment and contributed greatly to the emergence of a middle class in their host nations.”

A former president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Kitaoka is a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. “The overall movement in ASEAN-Japan relations,” he continues, “has been positive, though the relations have hit the occasional bump in the road. A notable bump occurred when then-Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei visited Southeast Asian nations in 1974.”

The large economic presence that Japanese companies built in Southeast Asia had engendered frictions, as well as benefits. Local students staged anti-Japanese demonstrations in Bangkok, Jakarta, and elsewhere in the region. In response, Tanaka pledged to amend any inappropriate practices deemed to be the responsibility of Japanese companies.

“Japan’s commitment to nurturing sound ties with the ASEAN members later took shape,” Kitaoka explains, “in the Fukuda Doctrine.” Then-Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo enunciated the doctrine cited by Kitaoka in a speech in Manila in 1977. His doctrine centered on the pledge Japan would never become a military power, that it would cultivate relations of mutual trust with Southeast Asian nations, and that it would work with those nations as an equal partner in building peace and prosperity in the region.

Fukuda’s enunciation of his namesake doctrine followed in the wake of the 1975 US withdrawal from Vietnam. The Vietnam War was the backdrop for ASEAN’s formative years, and Fukuda thus chose perfect timing to assert Japan’s commitment to ASEAN.

“Another development that spurred progress in deepening ASEAN-Japan ties,” adds Kitaoka, “was the Plaza Accord [of 1985]. That occasioned a sharp appreciation of the yen, which triggered a surge in foreign direct investment by Japanese companies.”

The ASEAN members and Japan hit another bump in the road in 1997, when a financial crisis struck East and Southeast Asia. But the ASEAN members recovered rapidly from that crisis, demonstrating what Kitaoka characterizes as an “impressive resilience.”

Imparting increased momentum to
ASEAN-Japan interchange

Kitaoka Svhinichi

Kitaoka Svhinichi
Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo

“A regional grouping of nations can seem more or less integrated,” comments Kitaoka, “depending on which measure you use for integration—economic, political, military, or whatever. ASEAN has functioned as well as or better than most other regional groupings, such as the African Union and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The European Union is the most integrated of the regional groupings by far, but it is an outlier. That is on account of the extraordinary commonality among its members in regard to political systems and culture, including religion. ASEAN has achieved impressive togetherness for a group of such disparate nations.”

“Let us note,” observes Kitaoka, “that ASEAN’s charter states that a purpose of the association is ‘to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.’ I hope that Japan will impart further momentum to its ASEAN engagement by promoting interchange in human resources. Hosting foreign students in Japan is a tremendously effective way to nurture understanding of our nation. We also need to encourage more Japanese students to study in Southeast Asian nations.”

Understanding ASEAN as a Duality

Kishida Fumio

Kishida Fumio
Prime Minister of Japan

Japan’s present prime minister, Kishida Fumio, reported that the September 2023 ASEAN-Japan summit in Jakarta had reinforced the counterparties’ relationship further. “We upgraded the relationship between Japan and ASEAN, which spans 50 years, to a comprehensive, strategic partnership. . . . Japan clearly stated its support for the mainstreaming of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which ASEAN is promoting.”

“ASEAN,” emphasizes Oba, “has attained a multifaceted sophistication in its evolving approach to addressing the members’ common goals. The members laid a durable foundation in the 1960s with the mutual acknowledgement of national borders and the pledge not to intervene in each other’s domestic affairs. That addressed what, in a time of profound regional unrest, was an existential challenge for Southeast Asian nations.

“The ASEAN members have since accompanied their commitment to noninterference with increased emphasis on other principles, such as democracy and human rights. They enshrined a commitment to those principles in the ASEAN Charter, adopted in 2007, and they reaffirmed their commitment to human rights with the 2012 adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. The expressed commitment to human rights might sound inconsistent with the principle of noninterference. But the verbal commitment, even in the absence of an enforcement mechanism, has been instrumental in fortifying ASEAN.”

Highlighting the notion of ASEAN centrality

Oba Mie

Oba Mie
Professor, Kanagawa University

Oba is a voice for rhetorical precision in discussing ASEAN. A professor of international relations at Kanagawa University, she chaired a panel of 12 experts on ASEAN-Japan relations assembled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 2022. The panel prepared policy recommendations and submitted them to the deputy chief cabinet secretary in 2023, the 50th anniversary of the establishment of formal relations between ASEAN and Japan.

“We need to understand ASEAN,” Oba urges, “as a duality: as a single organization and as 10 sovereign nations. The organization, headquartered in Jakarta, performs important functions in coordinating interaction among the member states and between those states—collectively and individually—and other nations. Meanwhile, the member states each have their own domestic and diplomatic priorities. So we can discuss the organization, ‘ASEAN,’ or we can discuss its constituent parts, ‘the ASEAN member states.’ But we need to be clear as to what we’re talking about.”

ASEAN is a central emphasis, Oba notes, in the Kishida government’s approach to managing Japan’s multilateral relations in the Indo-Pacific. Kishida inherited the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision from his predecessor, the late Abe Shinzo, and he has taken pains to mesh that vision with the aforementioned ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

“Southeast Asian countries,” declared Kishida in a January 2023 speech in the United States, “are the closest and most crucial partners for Japan [in the Global South]. A Free and Open Indo-Pacific, FOIP, and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, AOIP, resonate with each other. And I will be soon upgrading the FOIP vision.”

At the heart of the AOIP is the notion of ASEAN centrality. The AOIP, explains the ASEAN secretariat, “envisages ASEAN centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.” ASEAN has predicated the AOIP, meanwhile, on openness to engaging with any and all neighbors in the Asia-Pacific.