Difficult trilateral relations

Difficult trilateral relations

A special three-day summit between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is scheduled to start on Dec 13, but Kyodo news agency has already reported that the two sides have reached an agreement on maintaining airspace safety over the high seas and will release a joint statement on the issue. The reported move is widely seen as targeting China's newly established Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.

Will the summit issue a joint statement aimed at China? What direction will Japan-ASEAN relations take? And does the intimate Japan-ASEAN relationship being bandied about by Japan mean the two sides will forge a strategic alliance against China in certain fields? China has enough reasons to be concerned about these questions.

The introduction of the Fukuda Doctrine in the 1970s marked Japan's major strategic shift toward ASEAN. The doctrine says Japan will never become a military power, and will develop "heart-to-heart" relations with Southeast Asian countries and commit itself as an equal partner in establishing peace and prosperity in the region.

During the Cold War, the pacifist Fukuda Doctrine and its practice by Japan made many ASEAN member states pardon Tokyo for the atrocities and suffering it had unleashed on them during World War II. This helped the development of ASEAN-Japan relations, paving the way for an improvement in Japan's bilateral ties with ASEAN member states after the end of the Cold War.

In recent years, however, Japan has intensified its diplomatic and economic initiatives toward ASEAN for three specific reasons. The first is security consideration. China's rapid rise, along with its military buildup, has rattled Japan, which on many occasions has expressed concern over the so-called lack of transparency of the Chinese military. Japan has also voiced concern over Chinese navy ships navigating through international waters around Japan and China's increasingly assertive stance on the disputes over the islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Strategically, Japan mistakes China to be a major threat to its security.

Japan has, for all practical purposes, been playing a dual strategic game. It's true that Japan is committed to its defence-oriented alliance with the US. But it's also true that it is desperate to add the element of aggression to it. Besides, it has also been trying to lure more countries to side with it on strategic and security issues. And given ASEAN's irreplaceable role in regional multilateral security cooperation - along with the fact that some ASEAN member states also have maritime territorial disputes with China - Japan sees the Southeast Asian association as its natural ally to counterbalance China's rising influence.

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