Japan’s diplomacy with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has become more challenging after tensions over Taiwan were laid bare at a series of meetings through Friday involving ASEAN, known for its principle of neutrality toward major powers, and its dialogue partners.
Southeast Asia has been regarded as a region at the forefront of rivalry between Japan and China, but some experts in international relations say Tokyo should not try to pressure ASEAN into its camp if it wants to maintain a relationship of mutual trust with the 10-member group.
“The view that Southeast Asia has become the site of a turf war is fundamentally wrong, and is an outdated mindset,” said Shin Kawashima, a professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
“Southeast Asian nations would not choose a side,” he said. “Their sense of themselves has increased along with their economic growth, and Japan’s relative economic power has declined, so we shouldn’t interact with them in the same manner as that of several decades ago.”
This year’s ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting, along with gatherings involving its regional partners, including China, Japan, Russia and the United States, held from Wednesday in Phnom Penh, exhibited signs of what U.S. President Joe Biden has called a fierce contest between democracy and authoritarianism.
The meetings kicked off a day after U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province to be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary.
As widely expected, China reacted furiously after Pelosi became the highest-ranking U.S. elected official to visit the self-ruled island in 25 years.
The Chinese reactions included the launch Thursday of a four-day, large-scale live-fire military drill near Taiwan using ballistic missiles, some of which fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Even before tensions over Taiwan spilled over into the annual meetings, the rift between major democracies and the China-Russia camp was deep over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Group of Seven major developed nations, including Japan and the United States, have introduced a raft of severe economic sanctions on Russia since the war began in late February. China, however, has refrained from taking similar steps.
In an apparent protest at Japan’s siding with the core of the Western alliance over Taiwan and Ukraine, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers — Wang Yi and Sergey Lavrov — had left their seats by the time their Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi spoke at a session of the East Asia Summit on Friday.
China also canceled one-to-one talks between Wang and Hayashi shortly before the two were supposed to meet in the Cambodian capital, citing a G-7 statement that it said contained “groundless accusations” against Beijing over its response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Tomotaka Shoji, head of the Asia and Africa Division at the National Institute for Defense Studies, said the mounting tensions could have “a great negative impact on ASEAN.”
Shoji suggested that the repercussions of the standoff could also be felt in a non-security sphere, such as the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, the world’s largest trade bloc.
The bloc, also known as RCEP, is comprised of the 10 ASEAN members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — along with Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
In fact, it has already become clear that the “serious consequences” China had warned of before Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan would go beyond the scope of military action.
In addition to high-level military dialogue, China has suspended cooperation with the United States on climate change and legal issues.
Under the current circumstances, Kawashima said, it would be wiser for Japan when making efforts to boost ties with Southeast Asian nations to stop short of requiring them to pass “a test of loyalty to democracy.”
He said doing so would help Japan to continue to play a major role in the region, contrasting the approach with that taken by Washington, which he described as having “a tendency to do things in a preachy manner.”
Still, China’s influence in the region is greatly increasing, Shoji said, referring to the results of a survey conducted this year by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
In the survey, 54.4 percent of 1,677 respondents from ASEAN members said China is the most influential political power in Southeast Asia, compared with the United States, chosen by 29.7 percent, and Japan, selected by 1.4 percent.
“In Japan, many people tend to form a negatively biased view on China’s rise, but we’d better not label it as a negative thing for ASEAN nations,” Shoji said.
The institute’s survey also showed that 57.0 percent would pick the United States if ASEAN was forced to align itself with one of the two major rivals. China was chosen by 43.0 percent.
Meanwhile, the survey showed Japan remains the most trusted major power for people in Southeast Asia, with 54.2 percent expressing confidence in the country to “do the right thing” to provide global public goods. The United States followed at 52.8 percent and China at 26.8 percent.
“Just because ASEAN countries realize China’s enormous clout doesn’t necessarily mean that they are positive about it,” Shoji said.