Japan leads the ‘middle powers’ in shaping Asia’s future

Isa Khan

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Nowadays, it’s a fad among pundits and policymakers to reduce Asia’s contemporary geopolitics to essentially a Sino-American struggle for power. What this simplistic narrative of superpower rivalry tends to overlook, however, is the role of so-called “middle powers,” which play an increasingly pivotal and constructive role in shaping Asia’s future.

And arguably, no middle power in Asia is as important as Japan. This is especially true in Southeast Asia, where Japan is not only a leading source of infrastructure investments and overseas development assistance (ODA), but also enjoys tremendous good will among both opinion leaders as well as the broader public.

While still maintaining legal fidelity to its pacifist Constitution, Japan has also gradually become a key source of maritime security assistance to smaller Southeast Asian countries, which have been at the receiving end of China’s naval expansionism in the region.

Perhaps no country better exemplifies Japan’s growing leadership role than the Philippines. Despite wild swings in its domestic and foreign policies in recent years, the Southeast Asian country has wholeheartedly embraced Tokyo as a key partner for regional peace and prosperity.

Japan’s shifting role

Throughout Asia’s modern history, Japan has transformed from an imperial power in the first half of the 20th century to, following its defeat in World War II, an economic superpower in the 1970s and 1980s.

The long recession at the turn of the century, however, undercut Japan’s global standing and facilitated the emergence of China as the preeminent power in Asia. Meanwhile, Article 9 of the postwar Constitution proscribed Japan from offensively projecting military power or adopting an aggressive defense policy.

Nevertheless, Japan is still a force to reckon with. It possesses the world’s third largest economy, the most advanced naval forces in Asia and among the largest manufacturing companies in history. In the past decade, the Shinzo Abe administration oversaw the country’s transformation into a preeminent middle power in the region and beyond.

Though lacking the military and diplomatic reach of superpowers such as the US or China, Japan has proactively contributed to regional peace and stability, strengthened alliances with like-minded powers across the Indo-Pacific, and gradually developed robust self-defense capabilities in light of rising maritime tensions in Asia.

The upshot is the emergence of Japan as a pivotal player in shaping Asia’s 21st-century security architecture. And Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines have become a major advocate of Tokyo’s newfound role in the region.

If there is one thing that has been consistent in Philippine foreign policy in recent history is its inconsistency.

While the Benigno Aquino III administration was a staunch advocate of expanded American military footprint in Asia to check China’s ambitions, the succeeding Rodrigo Duterte administration has questioned the fundamentals of its alliance with America in favour of warmer ties with China.

While Aquino likened China to Nazi Germany, Duterte described the same Asian powerhouse as the Philippines’ “benefactor.” And yet, both Filipino leaders, despite their diametrically opposed ideological and strategic leanings, have pursued warmer ties with Japan.

Throughout their tenure, both Filipino presidents repeatedly visited Tokyo, underscoring the priority they attach to Philippine-Japan relations.

During his historic speech before the Japanese Diet in 2015, Aquino thanked Japan for its “support in igniting and sustaining Philippine economic growth” and “helping us recover from disaster and increasing our resilience to vulnerabilities.”

Crucially, the former Filipino president also endorsed a more proactive Japanese regional policy by emphasising the Northeast Asian country’s contributions to “promoting peace and stability in our conflict areas.”

As for Duterte, he has praised Japan as “a friend closer than a brother” and “a friend unlike any other.” Far from just empty flattery, and vacuously toasting to “a special friendship whose value is beyond any measure,” this was a sincere reflection of the decades-long cordial relations between the former Davao mayor and the Japanese consulate in his hometown.

It also reflects Japan’s often overlooked centrality to the Philippines’ prosperity and political stability. After all, Tokyo is the No. 1 source of official development assistance, a top source of investment, a leading export destination and has been a key partner in the Mindanao peace process for decades.

The stealth superpower

In turn, dynamic Southeast Asian economies such as the Philippines have been integral to Japan’s China Plus One investment diversification strategy. And it’s in this region, perhaps more than any other place in the world, where Tokyo has found an enthusiastic audience for its increasingly proactive foreign and defense policy.

In recent years, Japan has played an integral and constructive role in the region on three important fronts. To begin with, its distinct brand of subtle and personal diplomacy allows Tokyo to cultivate and maintain functional ties with a broad range of regimes in Southeast Asia.

This is crucial, because it allows the Northeast Asian country to serve as a bulwark against China’s growing influence over authoritarian regimes, which tend to have testy relations with the West due to open disagreements over human rights and democracy issues.

This dynamic was clearly on display during Abe’s high-profile visit to the Philippines in 2017, when the Japanese leader became the first foreign leader to visit the Southeast Asian country under the controversial Duterte administration.

The former Japanese leader went even so far as visiting the Filipino strongman’s home in Davao in an unmistakable touch of personal diplomacy. Soon after, the Japanese leader managed to literally act as a middle power by mediating fraught relations between Duterte and America, paving the way for a semblance of rapprochement between the two estranged allies.

Meanwhile, instead of criticising or endorsing Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war, Japan subtly offered public health-focused and science-based assistance, such as with the establishment of drug rehabilitation facilities in the Philippines.

The second major thrust of Japan’s regional policy is providing a viable alternative to China’s controversial Belt and Road initiative. In the Philippines, Japan is already involved in multiple big-ticket infrastructure projects, including the first subway metro project in Metro-Manila as well as the North-South Commuter Railway project, which connects the country’s major industrial hubs.

Throughout Southeast Asia, Japan actually trounces China in terms of the total value of infrastructure investments, both new and old. More recently, Japan has also tied up with like minded Indo-Pacific powers to develop high-tech infrastructure for the region, especially in the realm of 5G telecommunications and artificial intelligence.

What makes Japanese investments particularly attractive is that, unlike their Chinese counterparts, they not only comply with good governance and environmental sustainability standards, but also generate more jobs for the locals.

And lastly, Japan has also become a key defense partner for Southeast Asian countries. In recent years, Japan empowered smaller powers such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia by helping them develop their maritime surveillance and defensive capabilities.

To this end, Japan has, inter alia, donated as many as ten advanced patrol vessels as well as TC-90 reconnaissance aircraft to the Philippines. Under a $100 million defense deal, Japan is set to export air radar systems to the Philippines, with larger Japanese-made patrol vessels expected next year.

Neighbouring Indonesia, which is also facing Chinese aggression in its waters, has also finalised a new defense deal with Japan in order to enhance its maritime security capabilities.

What Japan’s constructive role, and growing cooperation with Southeast Asian nations, shows is that the future of the region doesn’t have to be dependent on the whims of superpowers, nor does it have to be shaped by zero-sum competition between the US and China.



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Japan should one day shake of US and western yoke and come back to its East Asian and Confucian culture roots.

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