ASEAN and Japan are celebrating the 40th anniversary of their partnership this year. It began in 1973 when the Asean-Japan forum on synthetic rubber was established, and the relationship has continued to develop to this day.
It was therefore appropriate that Japanese diplomatic activities this year kicked off with high-ranking visits to Asean.
Within just 17 days between Jan 2 and Jan 18, Japan's top leaders visited seven of the 10 Asean countries (plus Australia). Mr Taro Aso, former prime minister-turned Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister, visited Myanmar and met President Thein Sein on Jan 3. Meanwhile, on Jan 9, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida embarked on a six-day trip to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Australia. Finally, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia between Jan 16 and 18.
During his stay in Jakarta, Mr Abe revealed five goals that Japan would strive to achieve in partnership with the Asean friends: to protect and promote universal values such as freedom, democracy and basic human rights; to ensure the seas are governed by laws and rules; to deepen economic integration by promoting trade, investment and flows of people and services; to strengthen cultural ties; and to expand youth exchanges.
This so-called Abe Doctrine marks a new turning point for Asean-Japan ties, which had long been defined by the Fukuda Doctrine laid out in 1977.
The Fukuda Doctrine had set forth three principles: Japan would promote world peace and prosperity, and would never become a militarist power again; it would build a relationship of mutual confidence and trust with South-east Asian countries; and as their "equal partner", it would contribute to peace and prosperity in South-east Asia. The basic assumption was that Japan was much stronger than Asean countries, but it was willing to lie low and atone for its war guilt by helping its Asean friends.
Now, 36 years later, the Abe Doctrine's assumptions are significantly different. Asean has become an area of robust economic growth with its gross domestic product (GDP) tripling in the past decade to US$2.1 trillion (S$2.6 trillion) in 2011.
The size of trade between Asean and Japan was 19.8 trillion yen (S$263 billion), which constituted 14.8 per cent of Japan's total trade volume, making Asean the second largest trading partner for Japan, next only to China.
Investment from Japan to Asean doubled from the previous year to 1.5 trillion yen, exceeding the 1.1 trillion yen that Japan invested in China. Bilateral investment to Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam also reached a record high.
Japan's economic interest in Asean has grown due also to the emergence of regional economic integration initiatives as well as rising labour costs and political risks in China. The Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) and the Asean+1 free trade agreements made it advantageous for Japanese business to operate in Asean since it can then sell its products to the signatories at lower prices.
In addition, labour costs in major Asean cities are lower than in major Chinese cities. On top of this, the business environment in China has deteriorated for Japanese business.
When tensions over the Senkaku islands - which China refers to as Diaoyu - flared up, China temporarily banned the export of rare earths to Japan, and Japanese department stores and factories operating in China were vandalised. As a result, a good number of Japanese enterprises are now moving away from China to Asean countries.
Moreover, as exemplified by the democratisation processes in Indonesia and in Myanmar more recently, leaders and people in Asean are becoming more exposed to and determined to promote universal values such as freedom of speech and human rights in the region. As Thai commentator Kavi Chongkittavorn has argued in this section of The Straits Times, Indonesia's successful democratisation ushered in "deeper and wider political and social transformation" in Asean.
Japan has also recently experienced meaningful changes of government - from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party to the liberal Democratic Party of Japan in 2009, and then the other way around last year.
Asean and Japan have become mature enough to start addressing these issues together. This is another factor that distinguishes Asean from China. Not only political scientists but also business leaders understand that a time will come when the waves of democratisation will hit China, which can be quite explosive.
Finally, Asean now carries significant strategic weight in Japan's regional security policy. In the 2010 national defence policy guidelines, the Japanese government defined Asean countries as its most important strategic partners, together with the United States, South Korea, Australia, and India, in stabilising the Asia-Pacific region broadly and in checking the rising and growingly assertive China more specifically.
In this context, the Japanese government has already begun to make capacity-building efforts vis-a-vis its Asean partners. In the budget proposal for financial year 2013, US$27 million was earmarked for enhancing Asean countries' maritime patrol capabilities, including the communication systems of the Philippine Coast Guard. Moreover, when Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario met Foreign Minister Kishida, his request for 10 patrol boats drew a positive response.
There are other challenges that Asean and Japan need to tackle together. Both sides are now truly equal partners but an intra-Asean gap remains. The gap between the richest, Singapore, with per capita GDP of US$46,241 in 2011, and Myanmar, with that of US$869, is not negligible.
As the Asean Economic Community Blueprint has suggested, equitable economic development among Asean member countries must be further promoted. Given its past experience with Asean, Japan is in a good position to help.
This intra-Asean gap applies to political issues too. While democracy flourishes in Indonesia and Myanmar, democracy in Cambodia, for which Japan had played an important role, is suffering a setback. A joint Asean-Japan effort is needed in this realm too and the Abe Doctrine's first pillar represents just that.
Both Asean countries and Japan are concerned about the negative consequences of China's emergence as a predominant state in the region. However, neither of them wants to antagonise China and create unnecessary tensions. After all, China is the largest trading partner for both of them.
Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have two things in common. They have serious territorial disputes with China; and China is the largest trading partner for all of them. These countries must strive to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with China while coordinating their policies to jointly protect their key national security interests.
In fact, given the size of the Chinese economy and its growing military capabilities, a symmetric military approach of engaging in cat-and-mouse chasing contests in the disputed areas alone will not produce good results for Asean and Japan. If the name of the game is the number of ships and aircraft, China would undoubtedly prevail. It is therefore imperative for Asean and Japan to work closely on the diplomatic front to maintain order at sea which is governed by laws and rules, while cooperating to build the minimum necessary capacity to fend off physical pressures.
Finally, cultural and youth exchanges, the Abe Doctrine's fourth and fifth pillars, have tremendous potential to enrich the Asean-Japan partnership. Last year, the number of Asean students studying in Japan was approximately 13,600, or 10 per cent of total foreign students. In terms of student/population ratio, however, there are 15 times as many Koreans and three times as many Chinese students in Japan as Asean students.
There is room for improvement. If we can increase the number of Asean students studying in Japan, and coordinate that with capacity-building efforts and technology transfer programmes, it would tremendously contribute to progress in the Asean-Japan partnership as well as the creation of a robust Asean Economic Community in 2015.
The writer is an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, where he is director of the security and international studies programme. He is also the author of North Korea's Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008.
By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in the region and Singapore.