Webinar on “The Courteous Power: Japan and Southeast Asia in an Evolving Indo-Pacific Order”

In this webinar, Dr John Ciorciari and Prof Kiyoteru Tsutsui discussed Japan’s engagement and Southeast Asian responses in the past and present, especially in infrastructure investment, multilateral diplomacy, and maritime security assistance. 


Friday, 19 November 2021 — The long-standing relationship between Japan and ASEAN is long-standing and deep, and the latter plays an active and autonomous role in Southeast Asia. albeit with a softer and less forceful approach. Put differently, Tokyo is a “courteous power” in Southeast Asia.

Dr John Ciorciari and Prof Kiyoteru Tsutsui shared findings from their new edited volume, The Courteous Power: Japan and Southeast Asia in an Evolving Indo-Pacific Order. Dr William Choong moderated the panel. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

These views were offered at an ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute webinar on Japan’s engagement with Southeast Asia. They were presented by Dr John Ciorciari, Associate Professor and Director of the Weiser Diplomacy Centre and International Policy Centre at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan; and Dr Kiyoteru Tsutsui, Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Professor and Senior Fellow in Japanese Studies at the Water H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre, Senior Fellow of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Professor of Sociology, all at Stanford University.

The webinar’s title, The Courteous Power: Japan and Southeast Asia in an Evolving Indo-Pacific Order, is based on Professor Ciorciari and Tsutsui’s new edited volume of the same name. Drawing upon findings from the book, the webinar explores the dynamics of Japan-Southeast Asia relations, covering issue areas such as security ties, multilateral diplomacy, regional cooperation, infrastructure development, cultural exchange, and the role of non-state actors.

Professor Ciorciari points out that Japan has successfully internalised ASEAN norms of consensus-based diplomacy to pursue its interests. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Professor Ciorciari showcased Japan’s role as a courteous power in various issue areas. In the realm of defence and security, Japan has been cautious about not being perceived as a provocative actor, transforming relatively inoffensive forays into peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief operations in the 1990s into a more robust and strategic role in regional security. Japan regularly participates in regional security networks, engaging with Southeast Asia partners in joint exercises (e.g. Cobra Gold in Thailand and Komodo in Indonesia), defence agreements, capacity building initiatives and high-level summits such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). These avenues have allowed Japan to become an important regional security actor without the baggage of being seen as provocative by other regional powers such as China.

On multilateral diplomacy, Professor Ciorciari points out that Japan has successfully internalised ASEAN norms of consensus-based diplomacy to pursue its interests. The example given was the creation of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the mid-2000s, where China and Malaysia were advocating for an EAS with similar membership to ASEAN to the exclusion of other regional powers such as India and Australia. Japan was able to work discreetly with other like-minded Southeast Asian partners such as Vietnam and Indonesia to oppose an EAS that may be susceptible to domination by China. Since then, the EAS has become an inclusive forum that counts 16 countries in the region as members.

When Japan was on the receiving end of ASEAN-led opposition, such as when it formalised the concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), it quickly recognised the need to soften its stance and address the concerns of Southeast Asian countries. On the whole, Professor Ciorciari notes that Japan has generally been very comfortable working within ASEAN norms of diplomacy, sharing ASEAN’s goal of preventing external domination while not seeking to dominate the region themselves.

Professor Tsutsui highlighted non-government organisations playing crucial roles in providing development assistance in Southeast Asia. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar was then handed over to Professor Tsutsui, who focussed on the role that Japanese non-state actors played in bolstering Japan-Southeast Asia relations. Throughout the history of Japan-Southeast Asia relations, Japanese businesses have played an essential role in shaping the way the Japanese government conducts foreign policy. One notable example pointed out by Professor Tsutsui was the Thai coup d’état in 2014. The Japanese government needed to take a stand on democracy and freedom to align its values with its principal ally, the United States, but at the same time had to ensure continuity and stability in Japan-Thailand relations. To diffuse this tension, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Thailand mediated between Thailand’s coup leaders and the Japanese government. Together, they came up with a way for Japan to speak out about democracy in a way that was palatable for the new regime’s leaders.

Japanese non-government organisations were also highlighted for playing crucial roles in providing development assistance and implementing aid programs in Southeast Asia. Since the 1990s, NGOs in Japan have fostered a high level of cooperation with the Japanese government, shaping its official development assistance in Southeast Asia. High profile examples include the Mekong Watch and Japan Water Forum.

Cultural exchanges through organic forms of grassroots Japan-Southeast Asia engagement contributed greatly to building a positive image of Japan in Southeast Asia. Japanese women who re-located to Southeast Asia also played an understated but important part in enhancing local knowledge of Japan. Professor Tsutsui described Japanese women living in Southeast Asia as “citizen diplomats” who facilitated Japan-Southeast Asia cultural exchange through avenues such as volunteering, teaching, running small businesses and working in local companies. Cultural diplomacy has also been facilitated by the popularity of Japanese cultural exports such as anime and manga in Southeast Asia. There are now many local Southeast Asian adaptions of Japanese cultural practices by consumers of Japanese popular culture.

Concluding the webinar, Professor Tsutsui talked about the upsides and downsides of Japan’s position as a courteous power in Southeast Asia. This approach allowed Japan to be perceived by Southeast Asian countries as non-threatening and a source of stability and continuity in the region. This perception has, in turn, allowed Japan to cultivate strong ties with many Southeast Asian countries. Japan’s courteous approach also has its downsides in that it cannot always reliably call upon Southeast Asian countries to take a firmer stance when it comes to matters that relate to Japan’s interests, most notably in its confrontations with China. Professor Tsutsui also opined that despite bolder and more hawkish rhetoric from the new Kishida administration, there is likely to be strong continuity in the current state of Japan-Southeast Asia relations. During the Q&A session, Professor Ciorciari and Tsutsui answered questions related to Japan’s role in the Quad grouping, its response to the coup in Myanmar, and its strategy to deal with a more assertive China. About 70 participants attended the webinar.

A related ISEAS Perspective titled “Japan’s Foreign Policy Direction under Kishida” is also available here.