An African proverb — “when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled” — has particular resonance these days in Southeast Asia, where a deepening struggle between two global giants is a serious threat for the region’s relatively small states.
A survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore ought therefore to raise alarm bells for regional observers. More than two-thirds of 1,000 respondents from the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations believe the U.S. and China are on a collision course in the region, according to the survey, the State of Southeast Asia: 2019, published in early February.
Perhaps more striking is that a slight majority of respondents (50.6%) have “little” or “no confidence” that the U.S., the region’s long-standing security provider, will “do the right thing” in contributing to “global peace, security, prosperity and governance.” To make things worse, another slim majority (51.5%) has a similar view of China. This is a problem because in a region of relative minnows desperately seeking stability and fearing foreign dominance, the traditional response has been to look to the U.S. for a greater presence and engagement.
Who should Southeast Asians look to if their perceptions of the U.S. are accurate? The obvious candidate is Japan. Like the recent poll, multiple regional surveys have confirmed that Japan remains by a considerable margin the nation most trusted to do the right thing for the region. Given the extent of Japanese economic and developmental assistance to much of Southeast Asia after World War II, that view is unsurprising.
It is notable that the survey shows that Japan has maintained high levels of support for its foreign policies even as the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has broken from his country’s postwar pacifist mindset and emerged as the most strategically active state among U.S. allies in the region. That suggests that the proactive policies of the Abe government are viewed positively as a stabilizing element in the region rather than a destabilizing force in light of China’s rise and other challenges such as a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Indeed, Abe’s 2016 reinterpretation of Article 9 of Japan’s constitution — to broaden the definition of “collective self-defense” to include Japanese military forces operating overseas with allies when vital national interests are at stake — caused little apprehension in Asia outside Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul. More recently, there were few complaints from Southeast Asia when Japanese naval vessels conducted drills in the South China Sea for the first time last September.
To be sure, Japan cannot replace the U.S. as the ultimate guarantor of stability and security in the region. China spends more than five times on defense as Japan and 5.5 times more than all the Southeast Asian states combined, according to 2017 figures. Southeast Asians are aware there is no balance against China without the U.S.
Even so, Japan is in a unique position to influence U.S. activities in the region. Tokyo is Washington’s most important and powerful ally in Asia and the U.S.-Japan-Australia relationship is shaping up to be the backbone of a long-standing but evolving hub-and-spokes security architecture. Abe is widely reported to have one of the closest personal relationships of any world leader with U.S. President Donald Trump, even if this tie has been frayed by trade tensions recently.
Japan is already filling some of the vacuum created by the perception of inconsistent and unclear U.S. policies in the region. Following Trump’s withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, its replacement — the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — would not have happened without swift and decisive action by Tokyo.
Additionally, Japan is one of the few countries in Asia with a surplus of capital and technical expertise. Lacking a comprehensive economic strategy for the region following its withdrawal from the TPP, Washington, along with Canberra, has wisely teamed with Japan to offer an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative when it comes to infrastructure building.
This and other activities will increasingly be lumped together as part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept that is being jointly promoted by the U.S., Japan and Australia. Tokyo is perceived in surveys as trustworthy, prudent and consistent. With many Southeast Asians suspicious that the FOIP might be a blunt U.S. instrument to contain Chinese power, it falls upon Japan to take on a greater role in developing the FOIP and promoting it to Southeast Asian countries.
Not all Southeast Asian countries are sitting back and passively observing how the FOIP concept develops or whether it will fade away. In a January speech, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi raised Indonesia’s interest in leading other Southeast Asian states to build a free and open regional framework for the Indo-Pacific. The explicit aim is to ensure ASEAN adopts an Indo-Pacific strategy to safeguard the interests of its members.
This is not a simple and unthinking parroting of U.S. and allied priorities, which is anathema to Jakarta’s “non-aligned” instincts. It signals a proactive approach to advance Southeast Asian interests in an increasingly unsettled and dangerous environment.
Even so, any such Southeast Asian approach needs to be consistent with the American and allied FOIP concept even when it is not directly aligned with it. In light of the positive views of Japan among ASEAN countries, it would make sense for Southeast Asia to treat Tokyo as its bridge to Washington with respect to a Southeast Asian Indo-Pacific strategy and other sensitive strategic matters.
Clearly there is a strong sense of anxiety among Southeast Asians caused in no small part by increased Chinese assertiveness and perceived U.S. disinterest. Anxiety ought not to lead to a fear of loss of control and paralysis. At least two countries — Japan and Indonesia — are responding.
Professor John Lee is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the United States Studies Centre in Sydney. He was previously senior national security adviser to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.