By: Phuong Nguyen

In Southeast Asia, Japan can be said to enjoy unrivaled popularity. According to the 2015 Pew Global Attitudes survey, an average of about 80 percent of respondents surveyed across four Southeast Asian countries said they hold a favorable view of Japan.

While China’s expanding military footprint in the disputed South China Sea has a headline-grabbing impact, Japan’s influence in this critical region is felt more steadfastly, but increasingly so, in recent years.

Since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was reelected in 2012, his government has pursued an active policy of forging closer security cooperation with many countries in Southeast Asia, most visibly those locked in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea such as the Philippines and Vietnam, but also with smaller countries such as Laos and Timor-Leste.

To put it into a broader context, Abe hopes to forge a geopolitical identity for Japan in Southeast Asia on the foundation of its already established—and still growing—economic presence there.  
At stake for Tokyo (and of interest to strategic thinkers in the United States) is the question of what the regional order in the Asia Pacific will look like in the coming decades. Will it rest on the US alliance system that was built during the Cold War, at the same time that old US alliances and new partnerships continue to evolve?

Japan would be at the core of such a system, but much depends on whether future US administrations can sustain their attention toward Asia and whether US economic leadership will still win the day in the Asia Pacific decades from now.

Or will it be a regional order centered on China, which has been spending significant energy and resources to piece together an agenda for regional cooperation to its liking? Tokyo has reasons to be wary of this outlook given its widening differences with Beijing on territorial disputes and unresolved historical issues, as well as growing regional anxiety over China’s activities in the South China Sea and naval ambitions elsewhere in the region.

Or might it revolve around ASEAN, a relatively loose grouping made up of 10 Southeast Asian countries intent on devising an economic identity for itself and appealing to all major external powers in hopes that they will all come and play by the rules? But in order to play that role effectively, ASEAN members need to prosper economically and be able to pull their respective strategic weight.    

As a result, at the same time that Japan has been bolstering its defense cooperation with the United States, Tokyo has worked relentlessly to help Southeast Asia become both a more interconnected region and a growth driver in the global economy. Japan’s revitalized agenda toward Southeast Asia in recent years was largely driven by its desire to build a coalition of like-minded partners to respond to Beijing’s continuing aggression in the East and South China Seas. But Japan’s interest in the region expands beyond simply lending maritime security assistance to claimant countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

With China’s recently announced “One Belt One Road” initiative capturing the imagination of many, few realized Japan had formulated and begun to invest in realizing its vision for infrastructure connectivity across Southeast Asia as early as the 1990s. This vision takes the form of three initiatives. Two are overland: the well-known East-West Economic Corridor that would run from the port of Mawlamyaing in southeastern Myanmar through Thailand and Laos to the port of Danang in central Vietnam and the Southern Economic Corridor that would connect Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City and could potentially extend to the port of Dawei in southern Myanmar. The third initiative is the Maritime ASEAN Economic Corridor that would consolidate port development, marine economic development, and information, communications, and technological networks connecting Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

Japan’s infrastructure push has taken on added momentum, as Southeast Asian countries look for the hard and soft infrastructure to be the backbone of regional integration under the ASEAN Economic Community, which took effect at the end of 2015, and to move up the value chain.

Of these, work has been completed on a large chunk of the East-West Economic Corridor, the infrastructure components of which regional governments plan to tap into to attract investment in energy, tourism, and agribusiness. This initiative has been described—at first by the Japanese private sector—as a pathway for Japan to “connect the Pacific and Indian oceans by land.” The Southeast Asia region is Japan’s number one investment destination in Asia (Japan is the second-largest investor in ASEAN, after the European Union), and ASEAN is currently Japan’s second-largest trading partner, after China.

From where Japan sits, the ability to reach even the westernmost part of Southeast Asia and gain access to the Indian Ocean, through which most of its energy imports come, is invaluable.

A more recent and pressing priority for Japan has been stepping up joint exercises with and capacity building for regional countries with an interest in maritime security and stability in the South China Sea, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In just a short time span, Japan’s once limited defense posture in Southeast Asia has morphed into regularized air patrol missions and port calls, with access to strategic facilities in central Vietnam, and possibly on the Philippines’ Palawan Island and on Malaysia’s part of northern Borneo in the future, thanks to Southeast Asian countries’ resolve to hedge against China.

Japan and the Philippines last year conducted their first joint naval exercises, and earlier this year signed an agreement that will allow Japan to transfer defense equipment and technology to the Philippines, which has struggled with modernizing its navy, air force, and maritime law enforcement capacity fast enough to fend off China’s expansionist drive in the maritime domain. Japan and Vietnam conducted their first joint Coast Guard exercise last year and first joint naval drills earlier this year, and the two nations maintain regular channels of consultation on defense policy cooperation.

Meanwhile, Abe and Indonesian president Joko Widodo agreed during the latter’s visit to Japan last year to boost maritime defense cooperation, with the possibility of Tokyo working with Jakarta to develop defense equipment down the road.

Southeast Asian states seem to agree that Japan’s invigorated interest and focus is beneficial to the region. Just as important, Japan’s robust investment in the region’s economic future and advancing connectivity help instill confidence in Southeast Asian partners. Tokyo has a window of opportunity to shape the emerging regional order in the Asia Pacific in its favor, with ASEAN in the driver’s seat, if it continues to play its cards right.   

Phuong Nguyen (@PNguyen_DC) is an Associate Fellow, Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS This article first appeared on the CSIS Asia Policy Blog, CogitAsia, here. Reposted with permission.