Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visits to Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have bolstered Japan’s regional credentials, particularly on contentious issues such as the war in Ukraine, South China Sea disputes and the changing world. order in the Indo-Pacific.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has embarked on a tour of three Southeast Asian countries from late April. His passage through Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand follows trips to India and Cambodia. Kishida’s forays were aimed at bolstering Japan’s regional leadership credentials, particularly on important issues such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the South China Sea conflict, and Japan’s vision of an Indo- “Free” and “Open” Pacific.
Kishida’s tour of Southeast Asia follows the paths taken by his predecessors. During his first overseas trip in 2013, Shinzo Abe visited the same three countries. This was seen as Japan’s “return” to Southeast Asia at that time. During his trip, Kishida worked hard on what Japan already excels at: deepening economic ties. In Indonesia, he emphasized bilateral cooperation in many areas, including trade, infrastructure and maritime sectors. He said Japan will continue to cooperate with Indonesia to build Jakarta’s rapid transit system, develop smart cities and improve fishing facilities on Indonesia’s remote islands.
In Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said Hanoi and Tokyo agreed to strengthen cooperation in post-pandemic trade, supply chains and Vietnam’s energy transition. In Thailand, Kishida and his Thai counterpart, General Prayut Chan-ocha, signed an agreement for financial cooperation and support for Thailand’s emergency response to Covid-19. Prime Minister Prayut said the countries have started drafting an economic partnership agreement.
In the area of security, Kishida said Japan would start research to possibly provide a patrol boat to Indonesia to help ensure maritime safety and improve security, including patrolling the Sulu-Celebes Sea, an area long plagued by piracy. Japan has signed a new defense agreement with Thailand which will see the transfer of defense kits and technology to Bangkok. Despite being a treaty ally, Thailand’s relationship with the United States was complicated by the 2014 military coup. This brought Bangkok closer to Beijing in the immediate post-coup period. state, even as the US and Thai military continued their interactions. In this context, Tokyo is strengthening its role as a security partner in the region.
It is on broader, strategic issues – maritime security in the South China Seas, the war in Ukraine and the region’s evolving security architecture – that Kishida has gained ground. Indonesia and Japan have confirmed they will work together to ensure “free and open” seas based on international law. This was essentially a reaction to China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas and Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine. Repeating a line often used by Abe, Kishida said he and Vietnamese Prime Minister Chinh agreed that “any change in the status quo by force (in Ukraine) cannot be recognized”. Kishida and Chinh used similar language when discussing the South China Sea.
On the war in Ukraine, Kishida pushed to find common ground with his Southeast Asian counterparts. Japan condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and applied economic sanctions, while Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam issued more muted responses. They called for respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity but did not directly condemn Russia or apply sanctions.
Compared to Washington, which has tended to express its interests directly when it comes to influencing China’s behavior, Japan’s softer and more persuasive approach with Asian countries in the region is gaining ground.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) called for a cessation of hostilities and said Japan and Indonesia agreed that “negotiations and a peaceful solution can be found quickly.” True to Indonesia’s non-aligned tradition, Jokowi reiterated that Indonesia, as chair of the G20 meetings, decided to invite Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to the Bali summit in November. . Kishida was remarkably quiet on the matter. Even though the United States and many European countries have taken a heavy-handed approach to Moscow and even called for a boycott of G20 meetings if Putin attends, Japan said it was ‘not in a position’ to respond to the participation of individual countries. Seeking to downplay the differences, Kishida stressed that Tokyo will “extend its greatest support to Indonesia” as G20 chair. This is a Japanese approach par excellence: not pushing Indonesia to its limits while maintaining its flexibility.
During Kishida’s visit to Hanoi, neither Kishida nor Chinh pointed to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but both stressed the need for the international community to respect the independence and sovereignty of states. This reserved feeling is likely due to Vietnam’s complex relationship with Moscow, particularly as a buyer of Russian military hardware. But Kishida won a victory: the two leaders agreed on the importance of a ceasefire in Ukraine and the provision of humanitarian aid. Kishida welcomed Vietnam’s pledge to offer $500,000 to Ukraine through international organizations. The figure is modest, but helps to fix the perception that Hanoi is siding with Moscow in the conflict.
Japan has gained some rhetorical support from Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam on the need for a “free and open” international order based on the rule of law – an important part of the Indo-Pacific strategy” “free” and “open” (FOIP) which Japan stands for with its Quad partners the United States, India and Australia. Japan’s reading of the Kishida summit meeting with Jokowi said the situations in Ukraine, the East and South China Seas and North Korea mean it is ‘even more important’ to ‘maintain and strengthen’ such a rules-based international order.
Similar points were reiterated in Japan’s reading of the summit meeting with Prime Minister Chinh; Kishida stressed that Russia’s activities in Ukraine are a “clear violation of international law” and that “any unilateral change by force should not be tolerated in any region”. The two leaders stressed that compliance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is “indispensable” for “peace and stability” in the South China Sea.
Such declarations of shared principles by Japan and its ASEAN partners do not mean that the latter support FOIP, which is seen primarily as a platform by the United States and its FOIP partners to reposition the region in a geopolitical framework (in other words, managing the rise of China). The ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook (AOIP) places the region in an apolitical geographic framework.
Nonetheless, Kishida’s quiet small gains during his time in Southeast Asia have bolstered Tokyo’s leadership credentials. Compared to Washington, which has tended to express its interests directly when it comes to influencing China’s behavior, Japan’s softer and more persuasive approach with Asian countries in the region is gaining ground. According to the 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey, Japan remains the most reliable major power in Southeast Asia. Tokyo should stay the course.