S-E Asia's embrace of Japan and India

Even as other neighbours expressed disappointment at Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe's tepid statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Philippines lauded Japan's acts of compassion since the war that had helped dissolve enmity.

"This 70-year history demonstrates to the world that, through relentless efforts, the peoples of two countries can attain a remarkable achievement in overcoming issues of the past and establishing a strong friendship," said Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario last Saturday, a day after Mr Abe's statement was slammed for not including a fresh apology for Japan's war atrocities.

The Philippines is not alone in embracing Japan. Vietnam and Myanmar too have opened up to Japan's new push into the region.

Japan is back in South-east Asia, after having lost ground in the past decade as it grappled with a stagnating economy and its position as the dominant Asian power in the region was usurped by a resurgent China. Since returning to power in 2012, Mr Abe has lost no time in courting Asean, visiting all 10 member-states during his first year in office.

Japan is not the only regional power to woo Asean of late. India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took power last year, wants to expand its Look East policy of the 1990s with the new Act East policy announced in November.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

This is very much part of Mr Modi's Make In India drive to reinvigorate the South Asian country's sluggish manufacturing sector by integrating its economy with burgeoning South-east Asian economies as well as those of North-east Asia. India is therefore looking to expand its free trade agreements in the region.

There is, of course, a strategic dimension to India's push east - and it's got to do with the less than easy relationship with north-eastern neighbour China. Even though China is now India's top trading partner, the two sides have a simmering border dispute that flares up occasionally.

India is also uneasy over what it considers China's strategic encirclement, given the latter's increased economic activity in Pakistan, with which India has a tense relationship. China is also boosting its presence among island nations in the Indian Ocean - India's backyard.

New Delhi wants to forge a reciprocal presence in its east - as a "signal that, as the Indian Ocean becomes a regular theatre of operations for China, so too will East Asia be for India", wrote Mr Scott Cheney-Peters of American think-tank Centre for International Maritime Security in June.

South-east Asia is India's bridge to East Asia and the Pacific. India has strong economic and strategic ties with Japan and South Korea, and growing ties with Australia.

And so, India has begun urging freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, beginning with then Premier Manmohan Singh's call at a 2013 Asean summit for "the right of passage and unimpeded commerce in accordance with international law, and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes". This was clearly in response to China's growing assertiveness in making claims to nearly all of the South China Sea. Mr Modi echoed this call in November in his Act East push.

India is also seeking to expand longstanding security ties with South-east Asian states. It sold four patrol boats to Vietnam last year, and is said to be in talks to sell a cruise missile. With Indonesia, plans are afoot to enhance cooperation in maritime security and defence procurement.

As with India, the "return" to South-east Asia is both strategic and economic for Japan. In trade, Tokyo has fallen behind China, with its share of Asean's total trade falling from 15.3 per cent in 2000 to 10.6 per cent, or US$216 billion (S$299 billion), in 2012. China's share rose from 4.3 per cent to 12.9 per cent or US$319 billion in the same period. However, in foreign direct investment, Japan is still ahead, with US$23.1 billion in 2012 against China's US$4.3 billion.

As with India, the new emphasis by Japan on the strategic dimension of its ties is driven in part by China's new assertiveness, both in the East China Sea - where the two nations have a territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands - and in the South China Sea, through which much of Japan's trade and oil imports flow.

Thus, Japan has offered to sell patrol boats to the Philippine and Vietnamese coast guards, and is helping Asean states to build up their maritime capacity.

For their part, Asean states in the main welcome the overtures of India and Japan, both economic and strategic. Again, China looms large in Asean's embrace of India and Japan.

While Asean members welcome the economic opportunities to be had with China's economic rise, there is unhappiness over their trade deficits and unbalanced border trade, and the competition posed by cheap Chinese goods for for their own businessmen. In mainland South-east Asia, China

"is using economic assistance in return for regional support or political favours", Dr Huong Le Thu, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, wrote in a paper.

For Asean, therefore, the United States' pivot to the region is important to offset growing Chinese clout. But there is concern over Washington's constancy of purpose in the region. For Asean member-states, it is a definite plus to have regional powers that are stakeholders in the region play a role in balancing China's influence.

So, for Myanmar, tapping Japan and India for aid and infrastructure investment helps it reduce its economic dependence on China.

For Vietnam and the Philippines, edging closer in defence ties to India and Japan is a response to maritime territorial skirmishes with the Chinese.

Asean's best defence, however, is probably to stand together in the face of potentially divisive forces to maintain stability in the region, and to stay focused on building its economic community to bring prosperity to its people.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2015, with the headline 'S-E Asia's embrace of Japan and India'. Print Edition | Subscribe