EARLY last month, the Japan Foundation announced plans to send about 3,000 assistant Japanese language teachers to the 10 members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) by 2020. Scheduled to begin this month, the 30 billion yen (S$367 million) project will recruit university students and senior citizens to teach in local secondary schools.
The move, said the foundation, is aimed at deepening ties between Japan and Asean members. An initial group of language teachers is due to leave for Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines in September.
Japan has enjoyed amicable relations with Asean since it was granted dialogue partner status in 1977 - the year the Fukuda Doctrine, designed to strengthen relations with South-east Asia, was launched. But unlike other key partners of Asean, Japan has been constrained by the need to invest its primary diplomatic energy in its relationship with the United States. From Japan's perspective, this was a foreign policy imperative it could not ignore. So, while Asean was an important partner, it was not a strategic one.
Lately, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has been paying more attention to South-east Asia.
The announcement by the Japan Foundation, for example, came after Mr Abe and Asean leaders held a special summit in Tokyo last December.
Mr Abe visited Naypyidaw in May last year, marking the first time a Japanese prime minister had been to Myanmar in 36 years. During his visit, Japan agreed to write off nearly US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) in debt and extended new aid to help promote an industrial zone being developed by Japanese companies in Myanmar.
Mr Abe also renewed Japan's ties with Cambodia and Laos, travelling to Phnom Penh and Vientiane last November. He promised substantial financial and technical assistance to the two South-east Asian nations, thus reaffirming Japan's eagerness to cultivate a more meaningful partnership with them.
Similarly, Japanese private companies have also set up new production bases in Vietnam and Indonesia - Asean's two emerging economies.
Yet closer examination suggests that it is China, not South- east Asia, which has been the determining factor behind Japan's renewed enthusiasm in regional affairs. Japan's proactive role in South-east Asia and Asean regionalism was a foreign policy response to the rise of China and its growing foothold in the region.
Overcoming China's influence in South-east Asia has, however, proven difficult. China has long pursued a more aggressive approach to relations with Asean. In the words of Singapore's Mr Lee Kuan Yew: "It has become the norm in South-east Asia for China to take the lead and Japan to tag along. Since Japan is unable to recover its economy, it has no choice but to allow China to take the initiative."
Unlike Japan, China has always regarded this region as its sphere of influence. It has attempted to maintain that influence by using its economic prowess and soft power, while trying to reduce the perception that the country poses a threat.
For example, China initiated negotiations with Asean for a free trade agreement. It also signed a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in 2002. Beijing has also promoted bilateral strategic relations with individual Asean members, such as the annual joint military exercise initiative with Thailand.
The approach of Japan and China towards Asean and South-east Asia in general also reflects differing approaches towards regionalism in the pursuit of their respective national interests.
While Japan has been supportive of an open regionalism, China has worked to keep the region "free of foreign powers" by arguing that the entry of extra-regional actors would dilute the putative identity of Asean. But China's campaign has been under pressure from the majority of Asean members, as well as the US, which prefer to engage more actors to better handle the pace of regional integration.
These different approaches have had a tremendous impact on the region. On the one hand, they have stimulated other regional players, notably India and Australia, to get involved. The development has also encouraged Asean to strengthen its own organisation, in the face of the supposed Sino-Japanese competition, by taking a leading role whenever different opinions persisted.
The rivalry between Japan and China may also provide some room for manoeuvre for Asean when it comes to issues related to sovereignty, such as territorial disputes. Asean could seek to reap benefits from such rivalry by playing one power against the other.
The conflict in the South China Sea provides an interesting example of how Asean could make use of its relations with Japan to lessen Chinese influence. Asean claimants to the disputed territories, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, are now reaching out to Japan to build up some kind of alliance to counterbalance China.
Likewise, Japan's close ties with South-east Asian states are not merely for commercial purposes, but also to compete with China's interests in the region.
But too much emphasis on the rivalry would divert attention from the ultimate goal of achieving a genuine regional integration. Japan's renewed interest in Asean takes us back to its original agenda: to ward off China's influence in South-east Asia. Likewise, China's cooperation with Asean may be interpreted as a contributing factor in its overall goal of regional community-building. But Beijing also surely sees it as part of remapping its sphere of influence in the region.
The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, and associate fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
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