Opinion

Four decades of an ASEAN–Japan
partnership

Forty years ago, in 1973, a nascent ASEAN comprising the association’s five founding members met with Japan to iron out issues relating to synthetic rubber production. It was an important undertaking. The ASEAN countries represented latex producers and Japan was the largest producer of synthetic rubber.

The talks were successful. Thereafter, ASEAN-Japan ties blossomed to form one of the most important partnerships for both sides.

Throughout the four decades, the ASEAN-Japan partnership underwent several stages of development, markedly broadening at each stage.

The first decade, the period following ASEAN’s founding in 1967 to the pre-Fukuda Doctrine of 1977, was predominantly economic, with Southeast Asia providing raw materials to fill the ravenous appetite of Japanese industries. Financial assistance through Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) was another distinct feature. Interaction, however, was largely bilateral as a formative ASEAN was undergoing consolidation.

The oil crisis in 1973, the violent Malari incident (anti-Japan rally in Jakarta) in 1974 and end of the war in Vietnam in 1975 served as an impetus for a more dynamic ASEAN and a strengthened relationship with Japan.

The first ASEAN-Japan summit took place in 1977. A year earlier ASEAN began projecting its cohesiveness through holding a summit meeting. The second summit was organized in 1977 and Japan’s prime minister Takeo Fukuda was invited, becoming the first Japanese head of state to attend an ASEAN-Japan summit.

The ensuing Fukuda Doctrine set another historic milestone. Seizing the upbeat momentum, Fukuda crafted Japan’s new foreign policy toward Southeast Asia. Emphasizing a heart-to-heart understanding, the Fukuda Doctrine became the anchor of Japanese diplomacy toward ASEAN.

Japan’s heightened involvement with ASEAN was significant in light of a perceived disengagement of the US from the region in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Post-Fukuda doctrine, ASEAN-Japan relations, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, saw broadened ASEAN-Japan relations to include politico-security cooperation.

A sea of change in the political landscape of the region was taking place during this period. After the admission of Brunei in 1984, ASEAN had incorporated the entire Southeast Asia region by the end of 1990. This fast-tracked ASEAN from peaceful coexistence to shared
destiny.

Japan, too, underwent important changes in its politico-security stature. The world had been urging Japan to be a full-fledged global peacemaker. This included dispatching troops for peacekeeping operations. The country’s pacifist constitution, however, prevented Tokyo from fulfilling this expectation.

The 1992-1993 United Nations peacekeeping operations in Cambodia (UNTAC) accorded Japan a timely and pivotal opportunity.

Along with ASEAN, Japan was among the key parties that facilitated the Cambodia peace process. Tokyo walked the extra mile. Commitment to international peace overrode a self-imposed taboo for the overseas dispatch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). For the first time ever, JSDF contingent joined the UN blue berets.

Japan’s high profile role in Cambodia was further accentuated by the UN’s selection of a Japanese national, Atsushi Akashi, to the top job in UNTAC.

Post-UNTAC, Southeast Asia and an emboldened Japan ushered in a new chapter in ASEAN-Japan relations. With Japan’s steadfast support, ASEAN launched new dialogue forums: the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994 and the ASEAN-plus-Three in 1997. By ASEAN’s third decade, in 1997, the ASEAN-Japan partnership fully matured.

Japan was quick to help when the financial crisis swept Asia in 1997. Overall, Tokyo has been generous in providing financial assistance to support the ASEAN cause. The Japan-ASEAN Solidarity Fund (1999), the Japan-ASEAN General Exchange Fund (2000) and the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (2006) were examples of post-financial crisis contributions from Japan.

The 2000s brought out the best of the bond between ASEAN and Japan, when fearsome and deadly disasters struck both sides. Japan assisted with relief operations for the Aceh tsunami in 2004 and cyclone Nargis in 2008. ASEAN reciprocated in 2011 when the Great East Japan earthquake hit Japan. Disaster management cooperation is now a key area of cooperation between ASEAN and Japan.

Today’s ASEAN-Japan partnership sees strong Japanese support for ASEAN’s integration and community building endeavors. Japan is involved in all the three community pillars. The ASEAN-Japan Counter Terrorism Forum commenced in 2006, the Mekong-Japan Summit was held in 2009 and a broad-based Japan Task Force for Connectivity was established to assist ASEAN in implementing its connectivity blueprint, launched in 2010.

Japan underlined its priorities toward ASEAN with the appointment of a resident ambassador in 2010, the first dialogue partner to do so. The Mission of Japan to ASEAN was established in Jakarta in 2011.

Trade, investment and tourism interchanges have deepened the relationship. The private sector and ordinary citizens form an integral part of the ties. Japanese pop culture, including anime and manga, are hugely popular across ASEAN.

People-to-people connectivity is the ASEAN-Japan partnership’s biggest investment. Youth exchange activities have flourished over the years. Japan’s two major programs, Jenesys in 2007 and Kizuna in 2012, brought over 13,000 ASEAN youths to Japan to foster understanding and friendship.

In all, the four decades of friendship and cooperation between ASEAN and Japan have been remarkable. The synthetic rubber that brought ASEAN and Japan to the dialogue table for the first time in 1973 may have lost its significance by now, but in its stead many new milestones have been etched as ties have progressed.

Both ASEAN and Japan deserve praise for their finesse and maturity for a durable, complementary partnership. This is certainly a great asset for the peace and stability of the region, which remains precarious given the competing powers and interests that are at play today.

The writer is the director of the JAIF Management Team. The opinions expressed here are personal.

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