Japan is no longer the same

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a press conference in Tokyo on December 16, 2022. (Photo by David Mareuil / POOL / AFP)

It must be clear today that the Japan with which Southeast Asia has been familiar throughout the post-war years is no longer the same. The past 70 years of a docile Japan are no more.

The country’s latest defence strategy demonstrates that Tokyo is getting more active and more assertive in its defence strategy, following trends in the West. All Japan’s past pacifist rhetoric belongs to the archives. The three documents that the Cabinet has just approved will change Japan’s defence policy at its very core – a new national security strategy, the national defence program guidelines and the mid-term defence program.

As pledged time and time again, Japan’s defence budget will now increase to about 2% of its current GDP, the same as in some Western countries. It is interesting to note that the bulk of the budget will go to the procurement of US Tomahawk missiles, offensive weapons that will increase Japan’s ability to strike enemies at their bases.

ASEAN must now learn how to live with a Japan that is getting stronger by the day, judging from its new security plans. After all, Japan will spend at least US$3 billion over the next five years to strengthen its defence capabilities. Japan has to be extremely careful as, if this trend continues unabated, it could backfire and rekindle old flames.

During World War II, Southeast Asia suffered from Japan’s militarism. Since then, Japan has been able to assist the region with technology and development. “Heart-to-heart” diplomacy has further strengthened relations and cooperation with all Southeast Asian countries. Up until last week, these countries were used to a Japan that was not assertive in the beefing up of its defence forces. In the past few years, Tokyo has been strengthening maritime security cooperation with selected Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Next year, Japan and ASEAN will commemorate the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. It is a good opportunity to reaffirm Japan’s commitment to peace and stability in Southeast Asia. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the position of Japan on the war, Tokyo has been the strong voice in Asia in condemning Russia. Although Southeast Asian countries, under the ASEAN umbrella, do not see eye to eye with Japan on the war and economic sanctions, they are on the same page in believing that national sovereignty and integrity must not be violated and that a rules-based international order must be respected.

It remains to be seen when Japan would like to raise the level of cooperation with ASEAN, from strategic partnership to the next level, a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP). Last month, at the ASEAN summit, the US and India became the third and fourth such partners, following China and Australia, which were accorded the status in 2021.

It is obvious that, from now on, Japan will include strategic elements in its development ties with the whole region. From Japan’s perspective, closer strategic ties with the region, in addition to the US security alliance, will provide an extra layer of support. As the US is focusing on the Ukraine war, Japan is doing its bit to share the burden to ensure that the support of Japan and its allies, the US and Australia among others, remains intact.

Kavi Chongkittavorn


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