Southeast Asia: How Will It Survive the Era of US-China Confrontation?

As pandemics reach a climax, a number of phenomena are taking place that will determine the future course of the world. From a geopolitical point of view, the most important of these is the further escalation of tensions between the United States and China.

By Yutaka Iimura,Senior Fellow at GRIPS Alliance,Visiting Professor at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies,Former Ambassador of Japan to Indonesia and to France


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As pandemics reach a climax, a number of phenomena are taking place that will determine the future course of the world. From a geopolitical point of view, the most important of these is the further escalation of tensions between the United States and China.

China, believed to be  the  origin  of the  outbreak  of the  new  coronavirus, was the first to control the spread of the disease under its authoritarian regime. It has also greatly increased its influence by taking advantage of the turmoil caused by the pandemic. The US conspicuously failed to contain the coronavirus under the Trump administration, and, now with newly elected President Joe Biden, is trying to recover its international leadership role –greatly diminished under the previous administration.

It is often said that epidemics accelerate the course of history, and the confrontation between China, whose hegemonic behaviors have become more pronounced in the 21st century, and the US, whose military interventions in the Middle East have exhausted to a great extent its national resources, had already intensified during the second Obama term and the Trump administration. The pandemic has accelerated the trend of China’s rise and the decline of US leadership, and has made the relationship between the two powers one of mistrust and tension. Of course the Biden administration may engage in efforts to forge partial cooperation in some areas, but, given China’s hegemonic nature under Xi Jinping and the bipartisan distrust and suspicion of China in the US, it is difficult to see an easy path to reconciliation between these two powers.

Leveraging its position as the world’s second largest economy, China is extending its political influence by providing economic support, including infrastructure, to various parts of the world including Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. China is also striving to expand its sphere of influence in its immediate surroundings, on the back of military power that has grown dramatically in recent years. In economic, scientific and technological terms, China is not hiding its intention to surpass the US in the near future and to become a world leader. These efforts are unlikely to cease unless there are major changes in the political and economic situation in China.

China’s current expansionist behavior may be seen by the Chinese Communist Party leadership as a way of convincing the Chinese people of CCP’s legitimacy, or as necessary steps to maintain and strengthen the country’s power it has built in terms of trade, investment and military. Or, perhaps it is about Xi’s personal desire for power more than anything else.

However, in this  day and age, we cannot accept the idea of a powerful, authoritarian state indulging in the expansionism of a bygone era and undermining the international order that has been built on the values of freedom and democracy. In this article, we will consider these Chinese actions from a geopolitical perspective and discuss the strategy that Japan should adopt.

In particular, I would like to talk about Southeast Asia, which appears to be a priority area for Chinese expansionism. If the US-China relationship becomes even more strained in the future, the epicenter is likely to be in East Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia. Whether or not this will lead to warfare is difficult to predict, but it should be noted that China has not ruled out the possibility of using military force in order to “liberate” Taiwan. Just as the epicenter of the First World War was the Balkans and that of the Second World War was central Europe, so Southeast Asia, particularly Taiwan and the its surroundings, could become the epicenter for future conflict.

The End of Two Wars and Their Strategic Impacts

The end of the Cold War has changed the world.

In East Asia, the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 had already begun to change the geopolitical picture of Southeast Asia profoundly. Let me make some observations on how the end of these two wars were relevant to developments in the region.

(a) The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Socialist Bloc created a new geopolitical situation: a unipolar world or a “Pax Americana”.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, the international community mobilized to counterattack the Hussein regime and impose sanctions. Scenes showing the launch of US precision-guided weapons used to destroy Iraqi facilities were broadcast on CNN, and the world was shaken by the military might on display. It is said that China learned a lot from this Gulf War, accelerating the modernization of its military capabilities and adopting a new type of military doctrine.

The two pillars of the Western camp, NATO and the European Community, have also taken advantage of the vacuum left by the collapse of the Socialist Bloc to expand their membership to the Russian  border.  For  a  while Western countries also had high hopes for Russia’s democratization and becoming a market economy, but in the end the attempt failed leaving the Russians with only a sense of resentment and desire for revenge. Professor Emeritus Pan Kimura of Hokkaido University quotes from Putin’s book “The biggest shock of all was that the Soviet Union gave up everything and walked away from Eastern Europe, including East Germany, without taking any action.”

It is undeniable that Putin’s foreign policy has tended to be vengeful, or makes attempts to regain ground, whether over the Crimean crisis, Ukraine or Syria. It is often said that “where there is action, there is reaction”. The West, especially the US, may have gone too far to gain ground in the euphoria of having won the Cold War. Now it is time to suffer the reactions.

Another example could be seen in the Middle East policy. The US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq now seems to be what is known as “imperial overstretch”. China, on the other hand, saw this as a “strategic opportunity”. While the US was exhausting its power in the wars in the Middle East, China continued to build up its naval power, medium- and long-range missiles, and military capabilities in space and cyberspace. It continued its efforts to buildup its sea-power in the waters around China, in Southeast Asia, and in the Indo-Pacific Oceans.

(b) The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and that of the Cambodian civil war in the 1980s made it possible for China to make a full-scale comeback to Southeast Asia in the 1990s, laying the foundations for its subsequent expansion of influence in the region.

Particularly the collapse of the Soviet Union was the turning point in the history of this region like in other parts of the world. Freed from the threat of the north, China began to intensify its effort to cultivate its political and economic ties in the south, in other words, its Southward policy. For one thing, in order to “liberate” Taiwan, which has been its greatest priority since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it was necessary to become the dominant military, political and economic power in the surrounding region, particularly Southeast Asia. The location of the region is also strategically important as it connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Control of Southeast Asia, especially the Strait of Malacca, would threaten the trade and navigation routes of Western powers, including Japan. Conversely,if the region falls into the sphere of influence of the Western powers, especially that of the US, it will pose a security threat to China. Looking back at history, the Vietnam War already showed China’s strategic concern with regards to the regions bordering its south. While the Vietnam War was fought by Vietnamese for the independence of their country, China stood for its own strategic interest by Vietnam to reject America’s influence expanding to the Indochinese Peninsula and to Southeast Asia.

(c) In China itself, there have been already major changes of policy direction since the 1970s. The end of the Cultural Revolution saw the return of pragmatic leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, who believed that the modernization of China’s economy had to come first and foremost.

As a result, the “reform and opening-up’”path became China’s overriding policy objective, and the introduction of a market economy began albeit gradually. However there were also increasingly vocal protestors who believed that economic modernization should be accompanied by political reform, particularly by democratization, and this came to a head in the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre. Just as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was drawing to a close, partly due to Gorbachev’s democratization policies, Deng Xiaoping, watching the Soviet Union’s self-destruction, probably felt that he must not repeat the mistakes committed by the Soviet Union. The brutal and repressive policy against the Tienanmen Square protesters shocked the world, particularly the West and made China internationally isolated.

However, those who believed that China’s economic development would in the long run create  a  more  stable  and  constructive  China,  the  business  circles  which  were strongly attracted by China’s economic potential ,and those countries too geographically close to escape its influence prevailed over the segments of the public opinion advocating for human rights and democracy. So the West accepted Deng Xiaoping’s line of policy and China rejoined the international community. These developments had the effect of weakening the democratic movement in China,and fundamentally changed the nature of China’s modernization process. It was obvious that the West decided to help China’s modernization also to counterbalance the threat of the Soviet Union.

(d) Under the Jiang Zemin regime, China’s military expansion policy gathered momentum. From that time onwards, the growth of China’s defense expenditure began to constantly exceed 10% annually. In addition, having seen the military actions of the US in the Gulf War, China introduced a new doctrine called “a limited war under high-tech conditions” as an important guideline for the People’s Liberation Army. Accordingly itbegan to modernize its conventional forces as well as ballistic missile capabilities.

(e) With the start of the Xi Jinping regime, China’s foreign policy has become more hegemonic. With Deng Xiaoping the basic guiding principle of policy was to achieve economic development in a peaceful international environment, which seemed to fit within the post-World War II international order established under US leadership. However, with Xi Jinping in power, leadership seems to become more confident in China’s capacity to challenge the US in the near future – be it expansion in the Western Pacific, or development of advanced technologies. When Xi Jinping speaks of the “great revival of the Chinese nation”, he is a long way from Deng Xiaoping’s words of caution. Leadership under Xi Jinping did not probably predict the toughness with which the US would react to the challenge to its hegemony.

China and Southeast Asia

(a) From the 2000s onwards, China’s influence in Southeast Asia grew more than before, as it continued military build-up and, by signing a FTA with ASEAN, steadily took steps to strengthen trade and investment ties. It did not waste time in expanding economic support, cultural and personal exchanges, and furthering ties with the overseas Chinese living in various parts of the region. When I arrived in Indonesia as Ambassador in 2002, it was the time when Megawati government was striving to strengthen relations with China, and at the same time was easing its previous policy of tightening the grip on Chinese descendants in Indonesia. It was also around this time that various overseas Chinese groups in Indonesia began to hold lavish parties to celebrate the Chinese New Year in the most luxurious hotels around the  country.  President  Megawati’s  husband,Taufiq Kiemas, was the president of the China-Indonesia Friendship Association.

(b) In the mid-2000s, I recall having lunch with ASEAN’s Secretary-General. He made the following comment which was an eye-opening one for  a  new comer  like  me  to  the region: “In  the  early1990s, when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir proposed the creation of an East Asia Economic Caucus, ASEAN countries first looked to Japan to find out how she would react. Since then, the situation has completely changed. Now, Southeast Asian countries are looking to China first.”

(c) The words of Indonesian President Yudhoyono to then Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan also remain vivid in my memory. President Yudhoyono visited Japan unofficially, accompanied by several ministers, to observe the 2005 Aichi Expo. After his visit to Aichi, Prime Minister Koizumi invited him to a private dinner in a traditional -style dining hall in the newly renovated Prime Minister’s Official Residence.

This was a time when the relations between Japan and China were extremely tense, partly due to the UN Security Council reform campaign that Japan was undertaking, and President Yudhoyono wanted to have a frank discussion with Prime Minister Koizumi that evening about the future of China and East Asia. At the beginning of the dinner, President Yudhoyono made the following remarks: “Mr. Prime Minister, as I understand that this evening is an informal meeting, I would like to have a frank discussion about the future of Southeast Asia. I believe that with the rise of China, the strategic balance in the region is shifting. What is needed is for non-regional powers to become more involved in the region and to restore the strategic equilibrium. In this regard, I look forward to the role of Japan and the other major powers in the region.”

Prime Minister Koizumi’s answering remarks did not take a comprehensive view of the region, but rather focused narrowly on Japan-China relations, or perhaps even just Koizumi and China. In essence he said: “I am pro-China, but China does not try to understand me.” In fact there was no dialogue between the two men, but two monologues. Koizumi probably didn’t understand what Yudhoyono wanted to discuss. At that time, there was little awareness in Japan, except among some diplomats and scholars on international affairs, that the futureof Japan-China relations would be affected by the struggles for power in Southeast Asia.

(d) During Hu Jintao regime(2002-2012), China’s military expansion continued , and its presence in the East and South China Seas further strengthened.China ignored the territorial claims of ASEAN countries and behaved as if almost the whole of the South China Sea were its own territorial waters. The ASEAN countries were unable to respond in unison to this, and doubts about the unity of ASEAN were already beginning to be heard.

(e) Also in the middle of 2000s, a senior Singaporean government official told me during my trip from Jakarta to Singapore that “ASEAN members are now divided into three groups under China’s growing influence: those countries that are already part of China’s sphere ofinfluence; Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia that are trying to distance themselves from China; and those countries in between that are hesitating to make their positions clear.” The grouping of ASEAN members on the basis of China’s influence is still valid, although countries have come and gone and the number of China-leaning countries has increased.

ASEAN’s Development and Geopolitical Challenges

In 1967, during the Vietnam War, several countries from Southeast Asia formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in an attempt to survive in the midst of great power rivalries. ASEAN would become a far more important international entity than its founders had thought at the beginning, while its fragility still remains visible. What did ASEAN bring to the international community as a whole?

(a) Firstly, ASEAN brought economic development to the region. The end of the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Civil War, and the accession of the three Indochinese countries to ASEAN, brought relative stability to the region and created an environment enabling economic growth. This also in turn led to more political stability within each country.

In an environment where the interests of the external powers often conflicted, the priorityfor the Southeast Asian countries was to maintain the unity of their region as a neutral and peaceful zone between the rival powers and to accelerate their economic growth in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Japan played a major role in providing the economic support that made this process possible. In 1977, immediately after the Vietnam War, Takeo Fukuda, then Prime Minister of Japan, gave a speech in Manila on the principles of Japan’s diplomacy in Southeast Asia. He said that Japan and ASEAN should be equal partners, and that Japan would contribute to peace in the region. In particular, he made clear Japan’s foreign policy priority would be to support the economic development of ASEAN.

By the early 1980s, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand had already begun to grow their economies following the NIEs (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) and in the 1990s, after the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Civil War, three Indochinese countries began to shift from socialist to market economies and started to follow the path of economic growth. The World Bank analyzed this exceptional economic development in the region in its report entitled “The East Asian Miracle: Economic Growth and the Role of Government” which was published in 1993.

(b) Secondly, ASEAN played a central role in advancing regional economic integration. The Singapore Declaration in 2001 outlined the path to the creation of an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) by 2015. In addition, in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98, ASEAN began to get more actively involved in negotiations for free trade agreements with countries outside the region – these included China,Korea, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Multilateral free trade agreements followed. The RCEP, which includes Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, NewZealand in addition to the 10 ASEAN members, was concluded following the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The TPP in its current form would not exist without the role of Singapore, one of the four original members. Unfortunately two major countries have opted out for the time being from these agreements: India from the RCEP, and the US from the TPP.

The economic development and regional integration made ASEAN one of the driving forces of world economic growth.

(c) On the other hand, ASEAN has not been able to achieve as much in the security and political spheres as it has in the economic sphere.

The ASEAN Community was established in 2015, and one of its three pillars was the “Political and Security Community”, which aims to promote the prevention and peaceful resolution of conflicts by strengthening political cooperation, and to strengthen  relations with countries outside the region. However, the biggest problem in relations with countries outside resides in the relationship with other major powers, which ASEAN frankly cannot do much about. In the case of intra-regional disputes, it is extremely difficult to achieve concrete results due to the principle of mutual non-interference in the internal affairs of the member states and to the conflicts of interest among member states. For example, ASEAN is still struggling to find out a solution to the problem of Myanmar.

(d) In 1993 ASEAN decided to establish the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which was expected to serve as a forum for dialogue on political and security issues. However, it has turned out to be more of a speech show and has not produced any significant results so far. In fact, the East Asia Summit Process, which consists of ASEAN plus eight countries (Japan, China, Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Russia), may have more potential than the ARF, which has 16 countries and one organization (the European Union) as members without clear criteria for membership in addition to the 10 ASEAN countries. The Indo-Pacific Cooperation Initiative, which was originally advocated for by Japan and is currently being promoted by Indonesia, could be better addressed inthe East Asia Summit Process, and could be used as a mechanism to ensure regional stability and cooperation.

(e) The fifth point, and most important for ASEAN’s future, is China’s growing influence not only as a regional but also as a global power. China’s economic, military and political influence among others is particularly pronounced in Southeast Asia. We are now at a critical juncture as to whether or not the unity of ASEAN can be secured in the shifting balance of power.

From a geopolitical point of view, the 2010s was a period of shifting balance of power between the US and China, and a period in which hegemonic tendencies became more pronounced in China’s foreign policy. This trend has become particularly clear since the establishment of the Xi Jinping administration in 2012. Combined with the US’s self-centered, protectionist and sometimes impulsive foreign policy under the Trump administration, the US- China relationship as the fundamental framework for international relations in East Asia has become increasingly unstable and tense.

While the Trump administration struggled to contain COVID-19, which has infected more than 20 million people in the US, China was quick to use its authoritarian methods to control the outbreak and take advantage of the confusion in the West to strengthen its own position. In what has been described as “mask diplomacy” or “vaccine diplomacy”, China has increased its influence by providing aid to developing countries that lack the financial and technical capacity to fight the pandemic while the West has been unable to extend a helping hand

US-China Relations Under Xi Jinping

Considering the worsening relationship between the US and China and its effect on Southeast Asia, I would like to make a few remarks on what I consider to be important points when Japan formulates its policy towards this region.

(a) First of all, what is China’s goal in its external policy?

When Xi Jinping met with President Obama in 2013 and 2014, he proposed building a “new type of great power relationship between the US and China”.

After the 2013 China-US summit, the People’s Daily summarized the proposal in three points: “no conflict, no rivalry”; “mutual respect”, i.e. respecting each other’s chosen political systems and development paths, as well as their interests and concerns, and putting small differences aside in order to reach common goals; “work together to achieve a win-win relationship”.

At the 2014 summit, Xi Jinping proposed a six-point Platform for Action to Obama. Three of them are noteworthy.

The first is that the two countries promote bilateral relations based on mutual respect

……, respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, respect each other’s chosen political system and development path, and not impose their own will and model on the


Secondly, “both manage and control disagreements and sensitive issues in a constructive way without undermining the core interests of the other party, and do their best to

maintain bilateral relations and stabilize the overall development.”

Thirdly, “In the Asia-Pacific region, we will promote mutual inclusion and cooperation. The vast Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both the US and China.”

These ideas suggest that China under Xi Jinping wants to: be an equal power with the US; wants the US to respect China’s political system (one-party Communist Party dictatorship) and not to undermine its core interests; wants the US to acknowledge that in the Asia-Pacific region there is plenty of room for China to expand its influencegiven its vastness.

(b) At the same time, China announced its aim to upgrade its manufacturing industry in the document titled “China Manufacturing 2025” announced in 2015, and clarified the basis of its long-term strategy to “join the leading group of the world’s manufacturing powerhouses” in 2049, the 100th anniversary of its founding.

The US has become increasingly wary of China’s policy to upgrade itsindustries in advanced technologies, accompanied by the efforts to strengthen its strategic nuclear forces and theater strike capabilities, to build an ocean navy including aircraft carriers, and to develop and enhance its military capabilities in the field of space and cyberspace.The US considers those Chinese efforts as threats to its global leadership position. Call it a new Cold War era or not, there is no doubt that the Sino-American rivalry will continue to play a pivotal role in the international political and economic structure for the foreseeable future.

(c) At the same time, China will make it a top priority to establish a dominant position in its own periphery, particularly in Southeast Asia, which occupies a strategic position for Beijing militarily, politically and economically. It may eventually try to incorporate ASEAN countries into its own sphere of influence by seducing them with economic interests, threatening them with its military power, and making full use of its overseas Chinese network. It will do this not in a hurry, but as if it were cutting off pieces of salami one by one, dividing and finally dominating the whole of ASEAN. After all, what China wants is nothing less than an equal relationship between two great powers with the US and, in addition, as Princeton University professor Aaron Friedberg has said, “the hegemony in Asia”. The first step on the road to Asian hegemony is, one can presume, to bring Southeast Asia into its own fold, which will make the CCP’s dream of “liberating” Taiwan easier to achieve. For this to happen, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army must have the capability to neutralize the US military presence in the Western Pacific. It is for this very reason that it is working to expand its military capabilities.

(d) On the other hand, we can reasonably imagine that after several years of conducting aggressive external policy, some Chinese leaders might now start worrying about the negative reactions that it had produced abroad and might try to advocate for a softer approach as a tactical adjustment, not abandoning the basic line of policy aiming at “China as a superpower” and “unifying Taiwan”.

Response from Liberal Countries

Finally, if these are China’s aims, what kind of policy could be taken by liberal democratic countries, including Japan?

(a) The first option could be to take a conciliatory stance towards China’s foreign policy, similar to the policy of engagement that the US adopted from the Nixon administration up to the first term of the Obama administration – though in fact the US swung like a pendulum between engagement and hardline policy even under the same President. The EU member states, in particular Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has also taken an engagement approach, visiting China almost every two years. At the end of last year, the EU and China signed an investment agreement with Merkel’s strong support, but it was criticized particularly as the signing coincided with the Hong Kong crisis, the Uyghur  human  rights  problem  and  the “wolf warrior diplomacy” that Chinese diplomats were conducting around the world.

(b) The second option is what might be described as an extreme accommodation: accepting China’s ongoing militarization of the South China Sea and its dominant position in the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands; accepting the dismantling of the one country-two systems regime in Hong Kong (which the world seems to have already accepted); accepting Taiwan’s integration into China and so on. In the extreme case, the Korean peninsula and ASEAN as a whole could even become part of China’s sphere of influence in the future. I do not believe that this line of accommodation policy could or should be accepted by the international community.

(c) The third option is to adopt a policy of containment, as the US did towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, unlike the US-Soviet relationship of that time, the current economic interdependence between the US and China, as well as between China and the world at large, is incomparably greater, and China’s overall national strength is also greater. It would not be realistic to isolate China.

(d) The fourth option is to restore a balance of power: between the US and its allies on one side, and China on the other, while maintaining cooperation, for example, in economic and human exchange and on climate change. Needless to say, I would advocate for a policy that would balance competition and cooperation.

This will require a further build-up of defensive capabilities by the liberal democratic countries as China is rapidly and massively building up its own, but our military effort does not mean that we should be hostile to China. As is often argued, the longevity of peace in Europe in the 19th century can be attributed in part to the balance of power among the great powers of Europe, and in part to the formation of a system of cooperation among them. I believe that for peace to prevail in East Asia, a balance of power must first be created.

I am well aware that there are many in Japan who do not like the idea of a “balance of power”, but the situation has now reached a point that makes this pacifist mentality unsustainable: in the South China Sea, which is claimed by several ASEAN countries, China is building artificial islands in the high seas and turning them into military bases, while the US and other liberal democratic countries stand idly by. Inevitably some small and medium-sized ASEAN countries have been forced to take an appeasing stance towards China.

From this perspective, it is necessary for Japan and other like-minded democratic countries in the Asia Pacific to build more of a deterrent against China in cooperation with the US. In particular, there is urgent need for Japan to strengthen its own defensive capabilities, including medium- range ballistic missiles.

At the same time, Japan should engage in dialogue with China in the field of defense cooperating with the US and like-minded countries. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union signed agreements to limit strategic weapons, as well as the INF Treaty which aimed at eliminating intermediate-range missiles and the Treaty on the Reduction of Conventional Forces in Europe. Likewise, we should explore the possibility of engaging China on arms control and disarmament. Both defense and engagement are key.

How to Approach ASEAN in Our China Policy

Here I would like to make a few closing remarks in conclusion to this article:

(a) Trying to involve ASEAN even partially in a multilateral defense alliance is not a good idea, unless they wish to do so. A neutral and peaceful ASEAN is the best way to keep the balance of power in the region.

I am aware that some in the US are advocating for the creation of an alliance similar to NATO, but ASEAN countries are unlikely to accept such an idea and it would cause unnecessary international tension.

On the other hand, if we stand idly by in the face of Chinese hegemonic actions, those vulnerable among the ASEAN member states may tend to be further integrated into the Chinese sphere of influence. Hence the importance of the engagement policies toward ASEAN member states on our part. We have to strengthen our ties with them, in particular, in economic and infrastructure cooperation and in reinvigoration of our business ties. There is also an urgent need to build up our own defensive capabilities in cooperation with our ally and like-minded countries to deter China’s military adventures. In parallel, we must cooperate with ASEAN member states to make our rule-based international system solid and effective.

Importantly we must avoid forcing ASEAN countries to choose between the US and China. Recently, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote an article in Foreign Affairs arguing that countries outside the region should avoid forcing ASEAN to make such a choice. I hope that the Biden administration’s Southeast Asia policy will also incorporate this view of the countries in the region.

(b) Secondly, it is of utmost importance that the the US and European nations continue to send the message that they value cooperation with ASEAN. In this sense, Japanese Prime Minister Kan’s early visits to Vietnam, the chair of ASEAN, and Indonesia, a major power in the region, are commendable. During the Obama administration, the US, albeit somewhat belatedly, reversed its earlier policy and launched an Asia-oriented diplomacy (the so-called “rebalancing” policy), but the attendance of US leaders at ASEAN-related summits and ministerial meetings has been far lower than China’s. It should be noted that Southeast Asian countries are carefully watching these symbolic events, and this ultimately affects their policy substance.

(c) Thirdly, ASEAN is currently divided over the way it deals with China. There are those which seek closer ties with China and others trying to have some distance. This is a crisis of unity that ASEAN itself has been trying to avoid above all else. Meanwhile, China is likely to try to further fragment ASEAN. Japan and other democracies will have to be very cautious in how they respond to this. At minimum, we should try to avoid taking any divisive action. It is also extremely important for us not to create situations where countries bordering the Indian and Pacific Oceans become part of China’s sphere of influence.

(d) The concept of the Indo-Pacific as a region was promoted by Indonesia during the presidency of Yudhoyono, especially by then Foreign Minister Natalegawa. Recently, under Indonesia’s initiative, the concept was adopted as an ASEAN initiative in the form of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. In 2016, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe launched the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) initiative at the African Development Conference in Kenya, and since then, the US, Australia, India and other countries have launched similar initiatives, and Europe has also shown interest in the initiative. It is said that China tried to prevent ASEAN from adopting the AOIP initiative, although it is not clear what China’s intentions are: whether it considers the concept a rival to its own “One Belt, One Road”, or whether it believes the concept will lead to the encirclement of China. In view of the fact that the Indo- Pacific region is a global growth center, a sea lane for major economies, and a theater for strategic rivalries between the US and China, it is essential for Japan to cooperate with ASEAN in order to promote stability and prosperity in the region and to maintain free trade and navigation routes. To this end, it would be desirable not to be seen that Japan’s initiative has geopolitical aims, and to take a stance that supports ASEAN’s AOIP initiative. It is also desirable that the liberal middle powers like Japan, Australia, India, the United Kingdom and France work together under the banner of Indo-Pacific cooperation to create a system of cooperation for economic development in the region, while the Quad countries (the US, Australia, Japan and India) focus mainly on  regional security.

This is an English translation of a revised version of an article that originally appeared on the April 2021 issue of “Seiron” magazine.

Yutaka Iimura,Senior Fellow at GRIPS Alliance,Visiting Professor at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies,Former Ambassador of Japan to Indonesia and to France


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