The leading roles of ASEAN and Japan in East Asian geopolitical trends

With USA-China competition in the region evolving, a common approach to traditional security is needed, writes Bhubhindar Singh, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. As the next two important entities in the contemporary strategic landscape, he suggests, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Japan could determine the outcome of East Asian regional stability.

From left, USA Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, USA Secretary of State John Kerry, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida and Minister of Defense Tsunori Onodera

EAST ASIA IS AT a critical historical juncture as two major geopolitical trends unfold: the strategic rise of China, and the impact of China’s rise on the long-standing position of the United States of America in East Asia.

As US-China competition evolves, both Japan and ASEAN have to assess their strategic policies. Japan and ASEAN are the next two important entities (in no particular order) in the contemporary strategic landscape whose decisions could determine the outcome of East Asian regional stability.

China’s rise has been the main story of this century. Despite Beijing’s repeated assurances on its ‘peaceful rise’ strategy, China’s behaviour continues to provoke many questions about its intentions. 

This suspicion stems from China’s strengthened territorial claims in both the South China Sea and East China Sea, including rapid land reclamation to enlarge the islands and reefs in the South China Sea that alarmed the other claimant states, the US and Japan, and the militarisation of claimed islands, through the deployment of anti-aircraft missile systems on Woody Island.

Escalation of China's assertiveness

Most projections agree that China’s assertiveness in the maritime domain will escalate. This is especially true for the South China Sea dispute, as China clearly regards this sub-region as its own ‘backyard’. China’s assertiveness has resulted in run-ins between not only the other claimant states, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, but also with its long-standing partners, such as Malaysia, and with Indonesia, a neutral actor in the dispute.

The second key trend is to keep the US engaged, interested and committed to East Asia. China’s strategic rise challenges America’s traditional role as the main source of stability in the region. Though US abandonment fears have been a constant feature in East Asia’s strategic landscape, two factors make this concern more pressing today.

The first is the acquisition of asymmetric technology by China and North Korea, namely the anti-access/anti-denial capability (ballistic missiles, submarines and other weapons) that directly limits the United States’ ability to access its military bases in Northeast Asia, and in turn, weakens America’s extended deterrence capability.

The second factor originates from America’s policy in the Middle East. For East Asia, the Middle East is a constant source of distraction of US attention and resources. With the situation in Syria and the threat from ISIS escalating tensions, America’s involvement in the Middle East will only be heightened, further reinforcing the concerns of the East Asian states.

Responses naturally differ

Japan and ASEAN’s responses to the geopolitical trends have naturally differed. For Japan, the shifts resulted in a greater clarification of its national security objectives and strategy. Internally, it has strengthened its military capabilities, revised its defence strategy to focus more on the south-west region, lifted the arms exports ban, and increased defence spending.

Externally, it has strengthened defence cooperation with the US. A key development was the signing of the new 2015 Guidelines of Japan-US Defence Cooperation – the first upgrade since 1997 – authorising Japan to help defend the United States and other allies, even when Japan is not under attack (known as collective self-defence missions). Japan has strengthened its security relations with like-minded countries (Australia, India), formed security partnerships with claimant countries in the South China Sea dispute (Philippines and Vietnam), and engaged in robust defence diplomacy efforts bilaterally and multilaterally (ADMM-Plus).

On the other hand, the impact on ASEAN is as yet unclear. This is no surprise, as ASEAN is a collection of 10 states with individual national interests. However, one clear impact has been the more visible fracture within ASEAN. 

The differences between pro-China, anti-China and neutral camps have become starker. The 2012 and 2015 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meetings are good examples of this, as ASEAN countries failed to reach a consensus on how to express China’s behaviour in the South China Sea in the joint communiqués released during those meetings. In April 2016, this fracture made headlines again as the foreign ministers of China, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei met to agree on a consensus that the South China Sea should be resolved between China and the claimant states, rather than through the China-ASEAN framework.

Though clearly in response to China’s rise, Japan’s comprehensive strategic policy is largely accepted by the ASEAN states, because Tokyo’s moves are largely perceived as defensive measures. However, Japan should avoid any destabilising behaviour over the unresolved historical legacy issue, such as visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. This reduces Japan’s goodwill and supports the view that Japan can be a destabiliser. Also, Japan should avoid any anti-China balance-of-power strategies that could fuel regional perceptions that Japan is trying to create an anti-China coalition.

ASEAN disunity challenge

For ASEAN, it is important that the region remains the convening institution for East Asia – a strategy that has worked well in engaging great/major powers in the region, as well as sustaining its relevance in the regional landscape.

Addressing ASEAN’s disunity is the most important challenge for the next decade. ASEAN has to decide the tipping point for when China or America’s actions become detrimental to regional stability, and devise a common approach for challenging this. This is not a push towards the creation of a common foreign and security policy such as the European Union, but a common issue-based approach.

As the 50th anniversary of ASEAN approaches, it is no longer a choice but a necessity for it to start talking about common approaches to traditional security. As a source of stability both individually and through the US-Japan alliance, Japan has an important role in sustaining ASEAN’s centrality in the regional security landscape ensuring a cooperative Japan-ASEAN collaboration brings stability to a tense region.

Bhubhindar Singh is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. First published in The Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum. Read the orignal article