US presence in region 'particularly important' for Asean centrality: Japan Ambassador to Asean

World leaders pose for a photo line-up during the gala dinner on the second day of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Vientiane on Sept 7, 2016.
World leaders pose for a photo line-up during the gala dinner on the second day of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Vientiane on Sept 7, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - The engagement of the United States in the region is "particularly important" for Asean for the 10-nation bloc to maintain its centrality, Japan's Ambassador to Asean Kazuo Sunaga said on Friday (Oct 7).

"Asean members do not want one single major power - be it the US or China - to be excessively influential," he told about 300 businessmen and academics at a symposium in Tokyo. "This means if China continues to grow larger militarily or economically, then US engagement is all the more important. Since Japan is an ally, we must have continue dialogue."

Mr Sunaga was addressing the symposium, titled "Asean-Japan Relations and Regionalism of Asean", organised by the Asean-Japan Centre. He said Japan has to be more proactive if it wants to raise the status of the 18-nation East Asia Summit (EAS) to that of a "premier forum".

"Some countries say the EAS should focus only on the economy, but no, it should be a forum where security matters can also be discussed," he said. The EAS gathers all 10 Asean states, as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US.

China's influence in the region has been increasing in recent decades as the economic powerhouse has driven the region's growth.

However, it has become more assertive in its South China Sea claims - which overlap with those of four Asean countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - raising tensions in the region.

Asean's centrality has been threatened in recent years as the South China Sea disputes have proved divisive for the bloc. The grouping has failed in some instances to speak with one voice on the issue.

The US, while stating that it takes no sides in the disputes, has stressed the need for freedom of navigation and overflight in the vital waterway through which US$5 trillion of trade passes annually. It has conducted freedom of navigation patrols close to Chinese-occupied islands to challenge what it sees as China's excessive maritime claims.

Japan, which has no claims in the South China Sea, intends to raise its activity in the waterway through joint training patrols with the US and exercises with regional navies, and has given military aid to countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. China, for its part, has warned Japan to mind its own business.

Japan and China are embroiled in their own territorial dispute in the East China Sea, over a crop of islets known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

Thailand's ambassador to Japan Bansarn Bunnag, who also spoke at the symposium, lauded the robust Asean-Japan ties. He noted how Japan has "played an important role in Asean economic growth, given the most comprehensive economic assistance to Asean, and is Asean's most important dialogue partner".

As of last year, Japan's foreign direct investment to Asean totalled US$17.4 billion (S$23.9 billion), which was about US$12 billion more than its investment in 2005.

And as of 2014, a total of 6,135 Japanese companies had a presence in Asean, where more than 200,000 Japanese are now living.

But he also urged Japan to do more, in light of the formation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in December last year, which some experts believe will transform the Asean region of 625 million people into the world's fourth largest economy in the years to come.

"I hope Japan will continue to seize opportunities from the AEC as a single market, and as a production base, including developing businesses in the region especially in the areas of SMEs, agriculture, automotive industry, and in green and high tech industries," he said.

"And on the political and security front, I hope we can continue to work together to strengthen the regional security architecture, while ensuring Asean centrality. Our response to non-traditional threats must also be enhanced, whether in cyber- or trans-national crimes, terrorism, and disaster management."