Japan’s ASEAN Diplomacy

Beyond the ‘Reactive State’?

H. D. P. Envall, Research Fellow, Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 3 (Book review 2 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 13 December 2015.

Sudo, Sueo (2015) Japan’s ASEAN Policy: In Search of Proactive Multilateralism, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, paperback, ISBN: 9789814519021, 282 and xiv pages.

Is there a distinctively Japanese style of diplomacy towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)? In his new book, Japan’s ASEAN Policy, Sueo Sudo makes the case that there is (page 4). Japan’s ASEAN policy is liberal, covers environmental and aid issues, and promotes comprehensive and human notions of security. In identifying Japanese ASEAN policy as something different, Sudo seeks to refute the characterisation of Japanese diplomacy as ‘passive’ (Hellmann 1988) or ‘reactive’ (Calder 1988). Japan’s approach to ASEAN, he suggests, does not fit the usual typecasting, but neither is it an exception ‘in a broader framework of merely reactive foreign policy’ (page 10). Instead, Sudo argues that Japan’s approach to ASEAN is the great achievement of the country’s post-war foreign policy, a success through which Japan’s ‘contributions to East Asia’ can be measured. Indeed, rather than being reactive in its approach to ASEAN, Japan has pursued a policy of ‘proactive multilateralism’ based on its ‘own ideas, interests, and policy objectives’ (page 26).

In making his case, Sudo draws on his substantial experience and expertise in the study of Japan’s relations with Southeast Asia more generally (e.g. Sudo 1992, 2002, 2009). In this work, he puts forward a conceptual framework for understanding Japan’s policies towards ASEAN. He then outlines the evolution of Japan’s ASEAN policy: from the early post-war years, through its subsequent struggle to engage with the region’s new multilateralism, to the creation and consolidation of a more comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach. Receiving special attention is the Fukuda Doctrine (named after Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo), which laid out Japan’s new, more comprehensive style of engagement. However, the book also covers subsequent doctrinal developments and considers the likely future direction of Japan-ASEAN relations.

Japan’s reputation as a ‘reactive state’ (Calder 1988) stems from its perceived inability, especially in the latter years of the Cold War, to take important foreign policy initiatives independently. The concept of reactivity offered a plausible explanation for why Japanese domestic political structures discouraged a more active diplomacy in the 1980s and 1990s (page 13), and it corresponded to the assessments of the time regarding Japanese political leadership, which was also seen as reactive and constrained (Hayao 1993; Envall 2015b). However, as Sudo notes, subsequent studies have found the nature of Japanese diplomacy to be more mixed; Japan was proactive at times, notably in the areas of nuclear non-proliferation and regional economic integration (e.g. Miyashita 2001; Long 2001). Indeed, more recent works, such as those of Samuels (2007), Pyle (2007), Oros (2008) and Singh (2013), have moved the English-language literature away from this emphasis on reactivity to consider the dynamic nature of Japanese diplomacy and strategic thinking. These works have tended to focus on Japan’s nascent transition from its more low-key Cold War approach to the current era where it is seeking to be a ‘Proactive Contributor to Peace’ in the face of China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific (Government of Japan 2013).

Sudo bases his analysis on ideas developed in particular by Green (2003) and Rix (1993). Green’s (2003) assessment of Japan as exhibiting a ‘reluctant realism’ in its diplomacy receives particular attention. Japan, less secure about its national power and concerned about regional conditions, has been keen to move beyond its historical legacy (page 15). But it has done so in an often oblique manner and through ‘indirect leadership’ (Rix 1993). Japan’s indirect leadership, goes the argument, has been aimed at establishing influence over the long-term, has been ‘entrepreneurial’ rather than active, has engaged ‘in behind-the-scenes mediation’, and has been intended to help Japan represent ‘Asian interests at the international level’ (page 16). Citing Hook et al. (2001), Sudo therefore depicts Japanese-style diplomacy as ‘quiet diplomacy’ or ‘selective leadership in Asia’ (page 16).

Sudo’s framework for pushing this argument is based around three concepts: ‘ideas, institutions and proactive multilateralism’ (page 21). Ideas are significant as they offer direction and ‘purpose to power’, while institutions, especially in the form of Japan’s bureaucratic actors, continue to shape the country’s diplomacy, although the newish Ministry of Defense is not discussed. Finally, multilateralism is coordinated behaviour amongst multiples states based on ‘principles of conduct’ (page 25; see also Ruggie 1993). Japan’s multilateralism ‘is deemed proactive multilateralism’, according to Sudo, ‘because proactivity assumes that Japan has its own ideas, interests, and policy objectives’ and that its ‘policies are not based solely on the expectations of foreign countries nor in response to direct foreign pressure’ (page 26).

Sudo argues that Japan’s approach toward ASEAN has been to act as a bridge between rivalries in Southeast Asia. Japan, he suggests, has followed the region’s emphasis on ‘consensus diplomacy’ and has therefore been pragmatic in promoting democracy and human rights (pages 17–18). These features of Japan’s regional approach make a ‘prima facie case’ for establishing this diplomatic style as an alternative to the reactivity of Calder’s Japan. Two features of Japan’s ASEAN approach have been particularly important: 1) the Fukuda Doctrine as an example of a ‘proactive multilateral foreign policy’; and 2) Japan’s multilateral style of diplomacy.

The first of these—the Fukuda Doctrine—provided a comprehensive outline of the Japanese government’s approach to the region from 1977. The Doctrine was based around three commitments: the rejection of a military role for Japan in the region, the importance of mutual confidence building, and the development of equal relations aimed at boosting ASEAN-centred regionalism and improving relations in Indochina (pages 74–75). For Japan, therefore, the Fukuda Doctrine was the ‘real starting point of Japan’s post-war diplomacy’ (page 19, citing Watanabe 1992, 114). Japan’s early struggles to rebuild its relationships in Southeast Asia are ably contrasted in Japan’s ASEAN Policy with its subsequent success under Fukuda. Sudo offers a detailed account of how Japan shifted from a chiefly bilateral mode of diplomacy based on trade and economic interests to something more comprehensive. Japan welcomed the establishment of ASEAN in 1967 but was more interested in dealing with the Ministerial Conference for the Economic Development of Southeast Asia. By the 1970s, however, its economic success was creating a backlash in the region. When Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei visited Southeast Asia in January 1974, he was met by ‘unprecedented’ anti-Japanese feeling (page 54). Thereafter, the government pursued a policy that was considerably more ASEAN-centred, and in 1977 Fukuda announced his Doctrine.

Japan’s subsequent approach to ASEAN focused on consolidating Fukuda’s principles and aims. Japan kept to the idea of multilateralism, consistently emphasising the importance of ASEAN as it sought to establish itself as a key interlocutor between the region and the wider world. Its engagement was accordingly centred on improving investment, aid and political dialogue. Trade and investment expanded substantially over the following decades (pages 124, 170), although the 1997 Asian financial crisis hampered Japan’s capacity to influence the region and set back its investment into ASEAN countries (page 169). Prime ministerial visits were complemented by a range of other ministerial visits, including foreign and economic minsters’ meetings, and Post-Ministerial Conferences. Political dialogue was later buttressed by ‘peace consolidation diplomacy’ (page 159), whereby Japan increased its human security role in the region. By facilitating the development of ASEAN-based institutions for the wider Asia-Pacific, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Japan sought not to become a ‘policeman’ for the region but a ‘political broker’ (page 117).

But does this demonstrate a uniquely Japanese approach to regional diplomacy? And can this approach be said to be proactive rather than reactive? If proactivity is defined simply as having one’s ‘own ideas, interests, and policy objectives’ (pages 26, 237), Japan has undoubtedly developed a proactive ASEAN policy. But readers may wonder whether this definition of proactivity sets too low a bar, since even reactive states retain national interests and pursue foreign policy objectives. Yet if proactivity is defined not only as having its own agenda but consistently driving the region’s agenda, Japan might be better characterised as having adopted a hybrid approach in its diplomacy towards the region. Japan undoubtedly pursued a clearer agenda for its own foreign policy from Fukuda onwards, but it also relied on making use of diplomatic opportunities as they arose, suggesting at least an opportunistic level of reactivity. Indeed, the establishment of the Fukuda Doctrine itself was arguably an example of Japanese reactivity, since it was forced onto Japan by rising regional resentment at the country’s earlier trade-focused policies and by America’s pullback from the region (see Pressello 2014). Similarly, the subsequent rise of multilateralism in its diplomacy was heavily shaped by the rise of ASEAN as the region’s preeminent diplomatic forum. ASEAN strongly promoted multilateral principles of engagement, with Japan initially reluctant to follow this shift. The ‘ASEAN Way’ has subsequently remained the model of regional affairs.

The observation that Japan has pursued its own interests and goals also raises questions as to the nature of these interests and goals and the extent to which Japan has achieved them. Japan’s objectives for its relations with Southeast Asia are not always clear from the doctrinal statements made by its prime ministers. Yet, from the narrative of Japan’s ASEAN Policy, Japan has been fairly consistent in its objectives: a stable, independent regional order; ongoing Japanese diplomatic and economic influence; and an eventual acceptance of a renewed Japanese security role in the region (notwithstanding the commitment not to be a military power). Japan’s goal of establishing a stable, relatively independent regional order has been met. Likewise, its own influence in the management of the region’s diplomacy and economy has grown. Japan has at times been able to take a strong leadership role in the region (albeit in conjunction with ASEAN), such as by influencing China to participate in the ARF (Tan 2015). More recently, its potential regional security role has been increasingly accepted by regional countries, most notably the Philippines (Tiezzi 2015). Despite occasional failures, such as Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s problematic East Asian Community proposal (Envall and Fujiwara 2012; Envall 2015a), Japan has pursued a quiet but effective diplomacy that has achieved much of what Fukuda hoped for.

Still, it is important not to overestimate Japanese regional leadership. The cost of a ‘selective leadership’ in Southeast Asia—acceptance of equality with ASEAN—has contributed to ASEAN’s success in socialising Japan into the ‘ASEAN Way’, a feat that ASEAN has not been able to repeat to the same degree with China (Ba 2006; Chen and Yang 2013). Likewise, Japan’s role has been facilitated, but also constrained, by continuing American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, and its position is under challenge from China. American constraints and the Chinese challenge were both apparent in Japan’s failure to establish the Asian Monetary Fund following the Asian financial crisis (pages 173–74, 183–84; see also Katada 2001). Lastly, it is doubtful whether all this amounts to a foreign policy that is unique. In the sense that Japan’s approach reflects its particular historical, cultural, economic, political and strategic circumstances, it is unique. Conversely, phrases such as maximising opportunities, building closer relationships, growing economic ties, and participating in international organisations might easily describe the diplomacy of a number of nations, including some good examples from Southeast Asia.

Japan’s ASEAN Policy offers a detailed account of Japan’s engagement with Southeast Asia during and since the Cold War. Sudo utilises his deep experience of the region to explain how Japanese leaders, politicians and officials have done much to repair the reputational damage caused by Japan’s actions during the Second World War. In doing so, they have been largely successful in making Japan a key diplomatic player in this increasingly important region. This scholarship makes Japan’s ASEAN Policy a valuable resource for students and scholars alike who wish to understand Japan’s achievements in the region. In the end, perhaps the book’s subtitle—In Search of Proactive Multilateralism—provides a clue as to where Japan finds itself in its engagement of Southeast Asia. Even though the book argues that Japan, through this long-term regional engagement, has made a transition from a reactive to a proactive state, this suggestion of an ongoing ‘search’ hints that this is a work in progress: Japan is still searching for a diplomatic and strategic approach to world affairs that is more proactive. Given the dramatic changes to international order currently underway in the region, and also to Japan’s own strategic outlook under the prime ministership of Abe Shinzō (Envall 2013), whether this proactivity eventually arrives in a multilateral form or something else remains to be seen.


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About the Author

H. D. P. Envall is a research fellow in the Department of International Relations at The Australian National University. David received his BA (Hons) and PhD from the University of Melbourne and his MA from Hitotsubashi University. In addition to having worked as a copy editor and corporate editor/writer, he has taught on Japan’s international relations at Tokyo International University and on politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University. His research interests include Japanese political leadership, Japan’s post-war security politics, and security in the Asia Pacific. His recent book, Japanese Diplomacy: The Role of Leadership, was published by the State University of New York Press in March 2015.

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