The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI) jointly conducted the webinar “ASEAN Perspectives on Current Geopolitics and Japan” on 30 May 2022, in conjunction with the ASEAN-Japan Business Week 2022.
ISEAS-RIETI Joint Webinar
In this joint webinar, Mr Yasuhiko Yoshida, Vice Chairman of RIETI and Mr Choi Shing Kwok, CEO and Director of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre delivered the opening remarks. Ms Sharon Seah, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, presented the findings for The State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey Report, while Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University and Professor Mie Oba of Kanagawa University discussed the current shifting geopolitical landscape and the challenges facing Japan and ASEAN.
Mr Yasuhiko Yoshida, Vice Chairman of the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI), began by sharing the leadership role of ASEAN countries and Japan in the region as well as in prominent international organisations. He also noted the importance of Japanese leadership in the free and open Indo-Pacific and how it can contribute to peace and prosperity in the region. He also noted that Japan has been increasing its engagement with Southeast Asian states and believes that the deepening of ASEAN-Japan ties can help reinvigorate the global economy. Watch the clip here.
Mr Choi Shing Kwok, CEO and Director of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, highlighted that the geopolitical landscape has been in a state of flux and how the changing geopolitical trends have threatened the global rules-based order. Despite the geographical distance, the impact of the Russian-Ukraine War can be felt in the region. He added that the rise of minilateral initiatives and ASEAN’s lack of progress in the ongoing Myanmar crisis pose questions about the relevance of ASEAN centrality and its unity. However, while global supply chain disruptions and shifting geopolitical landscape presented challenges for ASEAN and its dialogue partners, it is also an opportunity for greater collaboration in order to create a region of lasting peace, security, and stability. He also emphasised the importance of Japan’s role and influence in both security and economic dimensions towards the region’s stability. Watch the clip here.
Ms Sharon Seah, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, briefed on the key highlights from The State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey Report on Southeast Asians’ perspectives on regional affairs and the role that Japan plays in the regional architecture. Although the survey was carried out before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the survey still provided significant insights into developments in the region including the ongoing and intensifying US-China rivalry and concerns about geopolitical and economic shifts. She shared that China has retained the title of being the most influential economic and political power in the region. However, she noted that the majority of respondents are wary of China’s growing economic and political clout in the region. In terms of the region’s trust perception of Japan, although Japan saw a decline in its trust ratings, it was still viewed as the most responsible stakeholder in the international community. A reason for the decline could be due to the Fortress image during the pandemic where Japan was relatively invisible on the world stage. Ms Seah assessed that this has changed with PM Kishida’s multiple visits to the region and a demonstration of Japan’s active diplomacy in the aftermath of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Most notably, Japan remains the most trusted major power in the region and ranks high in questions relating to soft power such as education and tourism. Watch the clip here.
Sharing by speakers
Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University highlighted that previous fragmentation between ASEAN countries has remained or even worsened as member states differ in their positions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and therefore pose as a challenge to ASEAN centrality. He also spoke about the role that Japan can play in the region, stating that Japan can seize the opportunity to fill the gap left by the EU and US, which are currently preoccupied with the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. He expressed hope that greater regional leadership from Japan would provide ASEAN states with an alternative option to hedge against the uncertainties of the US-China strategic rivalry. In response to the survey results, Dr Pongsudhirak projected that current trends of mistrust towards China would likely continue, given the shift in the current geopolitical landscape. Watch the clip here.
Professor Mie Oba of Kanagawa University called for a greater deepening of ties between ASEAN and Japan, which she believes will come naturally with the ASEAN member states’ high level of trust in Japan as seen in the survey. Against the backdrop of Japan’s slow economic growth, ageing population and regional issues such as the Myanmar crisis, an enhanced ASEAN-Japan partnership is needed to overcome these internal and external difficulties. ASEAN and Japan’s partnership has traditionally been economic in nature, but Professor Oba believes that it has also expanded into other fields and a more strategic partnership is becoming more important in ASEAN-Japan relations. With threats against the rules-based international and regional order, it is crucial for ASEAN and Japan to construct and strengthen the rules-based regional order and multilateralism, given that both entities are strong proponents. Watch the clip here.
The panel discussion was moderated by Mr Tetsuya Watanabe, Vice-President of RIETI and Special Advisor to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Mr Watanabe started the discussion by underlining China’s growing economic influence in the region and the newly launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Both speakers expressed scepticism on the effectiveness of IPEF due to the lack of market access commitments and concerns about US reliability given the lack of congressional approval. Mr Watanbe then requested the panellists to suggest areas where ASEAN and Japan can increase collaboration to strengthen economic ties. Professor Pongsudhirak highlighted that the automobile industry is a potential area in which both sides may consider. Noting the increasing diverse views within the regional bloc in regards to regional and international issues including the Russia-Ukraine war, he underlined the need for a strategic change in Japan’s geopolitical strategy towards ASEAN by acknowledging the diverse positions among ASEAN countries. Professor Oba highlighted closer cooperation with the youths of Japan and Southeast Asia. In closing, Ms Sharon was invited to share how ASEAN and Japan can further their partnership. She emphasised that Japan being a major member in many regional groupings and also a key member of ASEAN-led mechanisms including the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus – that Japan had a critical role in promoting peace and stability in the region. She also highlighted the potential for closer cooperation with 2024 being the year that Japan will celebrate its 50th anniversary of dialogue partnership with ASEAN. Watch the clip here.