Japan’s assertive foreign policy can start in Southeast Asia

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“The Ukraine of today may be East Asia tomorrow,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told an international security rally in Singapore, a slogan that speaks to the hard lessons learned over the past few months. Better deterrence and response capabilities, he told a room full of defense officials and diplomats, will be “absolutely essential if Japan is to learn to survive in the new era and continue to speak out in as a standard-bearer of peace”. Getting the rhetoric up, however, is the easy part.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted the dovish nation to make bigger promises on spending, security and a foreign policy that relies on more than the economy – good news for willing allies to have a muscular Japan deterring provocations from its nuclear-armed neighbors. Tokyo must now overcome what remains of domestic resistance, free up funds and strengthen alliances, and fast. But this “courtly power” can already use diplomatic tools to do more for the “free and open rules-based international order” that Kishida spoke about during the Shangri-La dialogue on Friday. He could do worse than start in Southeast Asia. It’s a region that, like much of the emerging world, has fallen far short of the allies’ response to President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, and where Japan has more credibility than most.

Ukraine has made even the most ardent pacifists in Tokyo realize that a totally unprovoked war is not a distant prospect. It’s a tough neighborhood: North Korean missiles, Russian saber slashes around islets it says are part of its Kuril chain and Japan calls its Northern Territories, and tensions in the sea of eastern China – not to mention the dramatic consequences of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The joint Russian-Chinese military exercises did little to soothe the nerves. It’s no wonder that while an overhaul of Japan’s constitutional article prohibiting “land, sea, and air forces, and all other potential for war” remains unlikely, public opinion is shifting and the limits are becoming more flexible, with counterattack abilities now available. discussion. Even Kishida, whose family hails from Hiroshima and is less hawkish than other members of his party, is promising a substantial increase in defense spending, a step further from the pacifist mindset of the past decades.

Even so, it will be difficult to move quickly around the house. Kishida gave no details, but an increase in the defense budget to 2% of gross domestic product, or to NATO levels, as his party has proposed – roughly doubling the current share – could be a tough sell in practice, given post-pandemic demands and already strained public finances. Kishida can still add manpower to the Self-Defense Forces, as the Japanese army is called, strengthen missile defense and cybersecurity (a major concern), while working to strengthen the alliance with America – although Kishida has, for now, ruled out nuclear sharing, or the possibility of harboring American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil.

But Japan, which has already broken with precedent by accepting refugees and sending body armor to Ukraine, can take other steps to protect itself and the rules-based order on which it depends, with more vigorous diplomatic efforts to help enlarge the alliance of nations. condemning Russia’s aggression and pushing to isolate its economy. Southeast Asa is a good place to start.

With the exception of Singapore, which imposed unilateral sanctions for the first time in more than four decades, the region has largely sought to remain neutral in the conflict. This is due in equal parts to the power of Russian arms exports, deep-rooted anti-Western sentiment, Soviet-era ties, misinformation – and of course diplomatic disengagement on the part of the rich world, without talk about distance. Just a day after Kishida addressed the Singapore rally, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, whose country denied Ukraine’s arms request, defended what he called neutrality strategic, referring to former South African leader Nelson Mandela’s comment when asked in an American interview about Cuba’s Fidel Castro: “Your enemy is not necessarily my enemy.” It is a position that Russia is exploiting as the food crisis worsens, which will be used to weaken support for Ukraine as the war continues. And it’s a problem the West is not doing enough to tackle.

Southeast Asia is important, not only as a grouping of major emerging economies, but because this year it is in the global spotlight: Indonesia chairs the G20, which will meet in Bali in November, and Thailand will host economic leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Mountain peak. It is therefore important that Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN, joins Indonesia and Thailand in issuing a statement on their respective meetings that sidesteps the small question of a war of conquest entirely, in favor to work “with all partners and stakeholders”.

Japan is already engaged in the region and in his first few months Kishida visited Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, and hosted the Malaysian Prime Minister in Tokyo. It is also the most reliable partner in the region, not to mention a leading investor. But as with his investment, diplomatic efforts have been patient and low-key, and much more is needed. There is an uncomfortable colonial past and officials will have to deal with reluctant and distracted governments – Indonesia, for its part, is already starting to consider elections in 2024. It will also have to move away from conversations about values ​​around systems policies. Singapore’s defense minister is right that there will be “few takers for a battle royale based on this.”

But stronger economic ties will help, as will military supplies to reduce dependence on Russia, not to mention coordination of food aid and support when needed, as the conflict in Ukraine fuels a soaring prices and hunger. Persistent diplomacy too. Preventing another aggressor from trampling smaller neighbors demands it.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• It takes sanctions and endurance to defeat Putin: Clara F. Marques

• Joe Biden can provide just the boost Japan needs: Gearoid Reidy

• The United States must do more than just show up: Ruth Pollard

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

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