Can Japan Lead the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Charge in Southeast Asia?

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga
Credit: 内閣官房内閣広報室, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After his rise to the Japanese premiership last month, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made no secret of his administration’s foreign and security gestures which remained in continuity with his predecessor, Shinzo Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision. In his first state visits overseas, Suga chose Vietnam and Indonesia as his destinations instead of the U.S. as had been long practised by the Japanese prime ministers over the years. Though this is open to different interpretations with one of them related to the COVID-19 situation in the U.S., it will still be a misnomer to construe that Japan is pursuing a different path than Washington when comes to the FOIP push in Southeast Asia.

As opposed to that, Suga’s latest move should be understood as enriching the FOIP vision by making it compatible and applicable to ASEAN member countries. From his state visits to both Vietnam and Indonesia, it is clear that the Japanese counterpart had displayed an excellent grasp about the situation in the ASEAN region. That Vietnam is chosen as the first destination for Suga’s state visit showed Tokyo’s appreciation of Hanoi’s stronger position on the South China Sea dispute with China recently as well as its chairmanship role in fostering ASEAN’s united stance on this particular security issue. His Indonesia’s visit, meanwhile, showcased his recognition of the long-standing influence of the largest Southeast Asian nation in driving ASEAN’s external strategy, especially the bloc’s newly adopted Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

Given these rationales for Suga’s latest visits to Vietnam and Indonesia, the question now will be on the ability of Japan to lead its FOIP charge as a middle power in the region. By all means, the success of Tokyo’s endeavor depends on the compatibility and utility of the FOIP vision among ASEAN member countries as opposed to Washington’s unilateral push of the vision and combative approach to its implementation. In this sense, Japan may prove to be a credible mediator than the U.S. when comes to the FOIP push in Southeast Asia.

In terms of compatibility, Suga has no hesitation to emphasize this matter in both of his trips to Vietnam and Indonesia. In his public speech given in Vietnam Japan University (Hanoi) as well as the official disclosure of Suga’s discussion with President Jokowi of Indonesia, Suga expressed Japan’s support for the AOIP despite the latter is framed based on ASEAN’s centrality and therefore, relatively different from the FOIP. For one, Suga emphasized the common principles which FOIP and AOIP shared in their respective plans ⸺ respect for the rule of law, openness, freedom, transparency and inclusiveness ⸺ while looking forward to build a peaceful and prosperous future with ASEAN countries in line with these fundamental values.

In particular, the respect for the rule of law remained to be the most compatible of all shared values. Without singling China, Suga called for international law as the basis for peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute instead of resorting to force or coercion to resolve the security issue. This is itself, a contrast to the U.S. State Secretary Pompeo’s forthright criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and singling it as a global threat during the Quad Ministerial Meeting in early October. As such, Japan’s talk of China without naming it is compatible to ASEAN’s long-held discourse of centrality which refrained from singling out China in the South China Sea dispute as evident in their annual chairman statements. It is precisely due to such ‘softer’ rhetoric on the South China Sea dispute that Japan will find itself more forthcoming among ASEAN countries (than its American counterpart) in deepening cooperation to uphold international law in the Southeast Asian region. Therefore, Japan’s articulation of the FOIP is deliberated based on its compatibility with ASEAN’s centrality instead of against it.

As for utility, it is clear that Japan is reaching to Vietnam and Indonesia for economic and defense cooperation that are mutually beneficial to each other.  Economic wise, Tokyo is looking to Vietnam as the third country for its diversification of supply chain from China (as in the form of relocation of Japanese companies from the Chinese market). As the second largest foreign direct investment (FDI) source in Vietnam, Japan is set to deepen its economic cooperation with Hanoi through Suga’s visit ⸺ as highlighted by the signing of memoranda of understandings (MOUs) between both countries on the power plant and gas-fired projects in the Southeast Asian nation.

For Indonesia, Japan is seeking to achieve one of its FOIP’s goals of expanding quality infrastructure development through potential participations in the build-up of more mass rail transit (MRT) networks in Jakarta, acceleration of train speed in northern Jawa, operation and development of Patimban port and so forth. More than just tapping on the vast infrastructure demand of Indonesia, the Japanese involvements in these potential infrastructure projects are undertaken with the emphasis that their technologies and experiences will be relatively beneficial for ASEAN countries as they are in line with the G20 Principles of Quality Infrastructure Investment that include openness, transparency, economic efficiency and debt sustainability. As pointed out by former Prime Minister Abe, such emphasis on international norms (G20 Principles) is aimed at distinguishing Japan from China in terms of how both powers approach infrastructure development in ASEAN countries and beyond.

In the area of defense cooperation, arms export remained to be an important focus for Japan following its latest arms sales to Malaysia and the Philippines. With the Suga administration’s refusal to appoint six scholars of Science Council who are critical against security legislation in the past, Japan appeared to have removed the last barrier for its arms export abroad. During his visit to Vietnam, Suga and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, agreed to set a basic agreement  allowing Tokyo to sell its defence equipment and technology to Hanoi as part of new area of cooperation. Similarly, during Suga’s meeting with President Jokowi of Indonesia, both sides also agreed to accelerate negotiations that will allow Japan to export its arms to Jakarta in the near future. Without doubt, all these defense equipment and technology served to fulfill the other FOIP’s goal in empowering ASEAN countries (militarily) against China in the South China Sea while at the same time, helped the Southeast Asian nations to defend their interest and sovereignty in the contentious sea effectively.

In the coming months and years, we should expect more developments from Japan’s FOIP charge in other ASEAN member countries. Pursued within the two pillars of compatibility and utility, the FOIP charge à la Japan is evolving into an endeavor that complements the Southeast Asian bloc’s AOIP agenda as a whole. Not only will this benefit ASEAN’s economic and security interests through its open cooperation with all major powers, it also serves to enrich the FOIP vision in which the American discourse and approach of its implementation are not persuasive for the Southeast Asian countries. In this regard, Japan is showing to other Quad member countries that it is entirely capable of leading the FOIP charge in the ASEAN region.

ANBOUND Research Center (Malaysia) is an independent think tank situated in Kuala Lumpur, registered (1006190-U) with laws and regulations of Malaysia. The think tank also provides advisory service related to regional economic development and policy solution. For any feedback, please contact: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of ANBOUND.