Japan and Southeast Asia: Kindred Spirits in the era of Trump

Richard Armitage, a veteran Republican official, has called for an Indo-Pacific that is inclusionary and not directed at any country. His view is markedly different from that of many Trump officials, and is similar to that of Japan and many countries in Southeast Asia.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) bump fists as they meet at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on 6 October 2020, ahead of the four Indo-Pacific nations’ foreign ministers meeting. (Photo: Charly Triballeau, AFP)
Victor Teo

Victor Teo

12 October 2020

In a recent interview, US Ambassador Richard Armitage called for an Indo-Pacific that is inclusionary and not directed against any particular country. Armitage, who is known for being a strong proponent of a vigorous US-Japan alliance as a cornerstone of US policy in Asia, took on senior Trump administration officials who have called on ASEAN countries to make a choice between the United States and China. He argues that “China lives here [in Asia], ASEAN lives here. Japan lives here. [The US] don’t. That’s why, when [Defense Secretary Mike] Esper says things like ‘We will never give back an inch of Asia’ … it was a terrible misstatement”.

A seasoned Republican who served under the Reagan administration as Assistant Secretary of Defense and the Bush administration as Deputy Secretary of State, Armitage is no policy lightweight. His more measured tone comes at a time when the overwhelming narrative from Washington is to blame China for America’s ills. Although one may question how much influence Armitage wields on US foreign policy, his views provide a basis to revisit the role of the US in the region. Armitage’s remarks may provide some reassurance to Asia that there are still officials in America who recognise that the interests and policy choices of regional countries might differ significantly from that of the US. It also speaks to a need for the US to frame policies that work to include rather than exclude China. As Armitage suggests, decisions regarding Asia ought to be jointly made by taking into account the views and interests of those in Asia rather than those from Washington DC alone.

Armitage’s appeal for a return to reason in US foreign policy is markedly different from that of Trump and his senior officials, who have increasingly taken on a harder – and even ideological – line against China. In October, Secretary of State Pompeo arrived in Tokyo to call on newly-appointed Japanese Prime Minister Suga and meet the other foreign ministers of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India and Japan). During the Quad meeting, Pompeo pushed for the organisation’s institutionalisation to counter the “CCP’s exploitation, corruption and coercion”. He suggested that other countries could become part of this framework at an appropriate time. The push for the formalisation of the Quad and its expansion has implications for Southeast Asia and ASEAN. How should Southeast Asia and ASEAN relate to the Quad if it were to evolve into a body that explicitly targets China? Also, in the event that an ASEAN member takes up Quad membership, how would it affect ASEAN unity?

ASEAN’s approach towards any proposed arrangement has generally been cautious for a number of reasons. For one, any arrangement ought to support a regional architecture that is open and inclusive even though there are rising concerns in Southeast Asia about China’s growing assertiveness. The arrangement should also espouse a rules-based order that is anchored on international law. It should enable the smaller powers to not only bandwagon or hedge against China’s growing capabilities, but also promote a region underpinned by values, rules and norms which all countries should abide by. In other words, China has to be included as part of the solution rather than excluded; containing China should not be the raison d’être for any grouping. Understandably, ASEAN is watchful of where the Quad is heading even as it welcomes a closer US-Japan partnership.

Armitage’s remarks may provide some reassurance to Asia that there are still officials in America who recognise that the interests and policy choices of regional countries might differ significantly from that of the US.

Republican officials such as Pompeo are pushing the envelope in dealing with China before the elections. Behind this push are special interest groups keen to ensure that a tough China policy remains, regardless of whether Trump wins the election or not. Given the broad spectrum of support in the US for tough action against China, the next US president is unlikely to have much wiggle room on this front. Japan’s Suga faces a similar problem. Without a broad power base, his premiership is very much beholden to the interests of the neo-conservative factions that dominate Japan’s political establishment. Many of Japan’s current government ministers and Diet members are also members of Nippon Kaigi, an ultra-conservative, right wing and politically influential organisation. Even though Suga was well known for helping to moderate Abe’s ideological impulses in his previous capacity as chief cabinet secretary, he is now the new patron saint of this movement, and he cannot appear to be too soft on China.

At this, American efforts to formalise the Quad may impact Suga’s future plans more than he realises. A more assertive Quad under US leadership may not sit well with Japanese neo-conservatives seeking to gain greater independence from the US in their effort to “normalise” Japan – that is, a country that can wield military power like any other sovereign entity. This is because Japan’s nationalism is aimed as much at the US as it is at China. Japan’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 onslaught will also not be possible without China. Despite the official rhetoric, it is impossible to wean the Japanese economy off Chinese capital, investment and tourists as well as the lucrative Chinese market. Hence, while Japan may prefer a stronger partnership with the United States or a more active Quad to check China’s assertiveness in the region, it also needs China for its own economic revival. In this sense, Japan may also be a kindred spirit of Southeast Asia as they try to work on a regional architecture that can bring out the best of the big powers while at the same time restraining the excesses of their actions.

Dr Victor Teo is Visiting Senior Research Fellow under the Wang Gungwu Visiting Fellows Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/155

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