Japan’s Shrinking ASEAN ‘Soft Power’

Posted on August 8, 2012


ASEAN members remain ambivalent about Tokyo’s political influence. With a stagnate economy and China’s shadow looming large, what can Japan do to regain the initiative?

A recent Yahoo! Japan search for “sofuto pawa,” the Japanese translation for soft power, yielded nearly two and a half million entries. While this number indicates the term’s popularity in Japan, it tells us little about how successful Tokyo has been in employing soft power throughout the Western Pacific.

As I discuss in my new book, Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy, while Japan’s soft power in China and South Korea remains low it has been far more successful in boosting its image in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, Japan’s soft power in the region has been limited to economic issues, and as Japan’s economy has remained stagnate, so too has its soft power. Although China’s recent assertiveness presents an opportunity for Japan to revamp its image among ASEAN members, it’s unlikely that Tokyo will successfully seize this opportunity.

In the initial decades after WWII, Japan’s engagement with Southeast Asia was limited, as Tokyo looked to South Asia for economic opportunities. It was only when those opportunities dried up that Japan found deeper engagement with Southeast Asia unavoidable. While Japanese-ASEAN trade grew rapidly, local populations grew increasingly resentful of Tokyo’s growing economic presence. Indeed, Southeast Asians nicknamed Japan the “economic animal.”

The extent of the region’s grievances became evident in 1974 when then-Prime Minster Tanaka Kakuei was greeted by numerous protesters during his visits to Bangkok and Jakarta. Although Tanaka himself dismissed the protesters as people trying to scapegoat Tokyo for their local problems, his intra-party rival Fukuda Takeo disagreed. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Fukuda decided to change course, starting with a landmark speech to the Filipino parliament in 1977.

Even today, this speech is seen as the beginning of Japan’s charm offensive towards the region, and the principles outlined in the speech are known as the Fukuda Doctrine.

Japanese leaders rarely give emotional speeches but Fukuda’s speech was an exception. Admitting suspicions and hostilities on the ground, Fukuda passionately pledged that Japan would try and build a “heart-to-heart” relationship with Southeast Asia. To that end, Fukuda pledged that Japan would mobilize all diplomatic resources – political, social, cultural, as well as economic.

Even before the speech, however, Fukuda had begun courting the region. As foreign minister in 1972, for instance, Fukuda recognized Japan’s policy toward Southeast Asia was skewed toward economic issues. He therefore became a leading proponent of the Japan Foundation, a semi-governmental organization in charge of fostering cultural, social, and academic exchanges, and Southeast Asia became a major target for the Foundation’s work.

Fukuda’s 1977 trip also led to the founding of the ASEAN Cultural Fund, a Japanese organization that offered 5 billion yen (US$63.6 million) to foster cultural exchanges within ASEAN as well as between ASEAN and others. The ASEAN Cultural Fund signaled a new mode of Japanese diplomacy that may be termed as “embedded initiative” –Tokyo embeds its initiatives within a multilateral framework and presents them as collective wisdom. In the case of the Cultural Fund, for instance, ASEAN members even have full jurisdiction over the operation of the fund.

Fukuda’s successors would follow his example with remarkable success. According to Japanese foreign ministry’s surveys conducted in five ASEAN member-states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines), the percentage of those who felt Japan’s war atrocities should never be forgotten fell from over 30 percent in 1978 to 20 percent in 2008. During the same period those who felt that the past should be put to rest rose from 37 percent to 68 percent.

In addition, the vast majority of respondents felt their countries’ relations with Japan are “good” or “generally good.” Roughly the same percentage of respondents agreed that Japan could be “trusted” or “generally trusted.” Japan’s charm offensive was solid enough to embolden Japanese Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru to openly call the region Japan’s “power base” in the late 1980’s.

Takeshita’s statement, however, greatly overstated Japan’s influence in ASEAN, which has declined ever since. The crux of Tokyo’s problems is that ASEAN members, while attracted to Japan’s economic, scientific successes, and cultural vibrancy remain ambivalent about Tokyo’s political influence. For example, a 2008 foreign ministry’s survey showed economic and technological cooperation was the top area that the public in six key ASEAN countries [Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam] would like to see Japan become more active in, with 66 percent choosing this category. By contrast, only six percent of the ASEAN respondents were eager to see Japan enhance its military presence. This was a far cry from a power base for Tokyo.

The one-dimensional nature of Japan’s image in the region is particularly detrimental because Japan’s economic performance has progressively worsened since the 1980’s, while China’s economy has grown rapidly. Although China didn’t begin trying to woo ASEAN members in earnest until the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis-when Beijing resisted the temptation to devalue its currency- it has outpaced Tokyo in this area for much of the period since. Indeed, even though Japan contributed far more than China in numerical terms to solve the financial crisis, the latter received more praise, including from the U.S.

Here lies the core dilemma for Japan’s charm offensive: Tokyo did not intensify its effort to propagate Japan’s soft power until the country’s hard power was in relative decline. Seen from this perspective, Japan’s soft power offensive is based more on its dwindling grandeur and a lack of other viable policies. As Japan’s economic malaise is likely to continue and its politicians look incompetent. Tokyo would find it hard to justify its relevance as a model to any international audience.

Beijing’s growing assertiveness towards Southeast Asian countries seems to offer Japan a chance to present itself as an alternative to China.  But this is partially undercut by an intra-ASEAN divide between attitudes towards China and Japan. The aforementioned six-country survey shows a near-perfect intra-ASEAN divide: people in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand saw China as the most important partner and continued to believe it will be in the future. Meanwhile, people in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam saw Japan as the most important partner and also continued to believe so for the future (henceforth the Japan Group). This intra-ASEAN schism was once again exposed earlier this month when Cambodia, as chair of ASEAN, blocked the Filipino and Vietnamese effort of presenting a united front to Beijing on accepting a code of conduct in disputed waters.

While neither China’s nor Japan’s charm was accepted unanimously, Japan’s problem is that its future importance declines across the board. The survey shows that citizens in five of the six countries felt Beijing’s importance would grow in the years ahead (including all the Japan Group members). Even where China’s importance is expected to decline slightly in Singapore, this is due to Singaporeans believing that India’s importance will grow from 2% as a “present partner” to 24% in the future. At a mere 4%, Japan’s importance among Singaporeans is negligible.

Thus, while China’s growing assertiveness on the South China Sea issue may suggest that Beijing is abandoning its charm offensive, Tokyo’s ability to seize this opportunity is limited by its dim economic outlook and by intra-ASEAN divide.

Jing Sun is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy (University of Michigan Press, 2012).

The emergence of a new Asia Pacific order

The change in the economic balance of power, between America and China, is leading inexorably to the emergence of a new order in Asia and the Pacific.

Little more than half a decade ago, the major trading partner of every East Asian economy, including Australia, was either the US or Japan.Today, China is the major trading partner of all those economies except the Philippines. China is set to overtake the US as the largest economy in the world in real terms within little more than half a decade, according to the IMF. This large and rapid shift in the structure of regional and global economic power is inevitably accompanied by shifts, not perfectly but nonetheless strongly correlated, in the structure of Asian Pacific political and military power and influence.

There are, in Washington, Beijing, Canberra, Tokyo and other capitals around the region, many who have been, and still are, unwilling to confront the reality of what is taking place in our regional strategic circumstance. It is not that the US has lost, or will soon lose, pre-eminent global military capability or political influence. Rather, the shift in economic weight and relative military capabilities now means that the projection of US naval power in the Asian neighbourhood is subject to contest and constraint (short of all-out conflict) in a way that was not the case up to this point.

How can this new circumstance be managed in a way that preserves the stability that thus far US hegemony has secured in Asia and the Pacific?

Over the last few years Hugh White has presumed to ask and to answer this question in a way that, initially at least, very few found comfortable. Today, his book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, is being launched by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in Sydney. White’s prognostications may or may not turn out to be right, but he has done a huge service in trying to set out the implications of the changes that are taking place in the region in a brutally honest and rigorous way.

Malcolm Turnbull, arguably one of the most cerebral of the current crop of Australian politicians on either side of Australian politics, provides both the best summary and critique of White’s thesis.

As Turnbull explains, White argues that China and the whole region have benefited from the peace and stability delivered over more than 40 years by the unchallenged pre-eminence of the US navy. But when China, already the world’s second-largest economy, overtakes the US its wealth and dignity will compel it to acquire a military capacity worthy of a great power, even though it presently spends less than 2 per cent of its GDP on defence compared to the US’s 4.7 per cent. Even when Chinese workers remain on average just one quarter as productive as those in the US, China’s GDP will level with that in the US.

‘China is America’s only rival for global leadership and yet as the rivalry increases so does their interdependency,’ Turnbull points out. ‘This will be the first time in the modern era that the world’s largest national economy has not also enjoyed very high average personal incomes’.

‘White does not argue that a war between China and America is inevitable, but he fears it is likely unless the two develop a clearer understanding and a greater mutual acceptance and respect. China is not developing, nor is it likely to develop, a capacity to project force anywhere in the world as the US has done. It is first and foremost an Asian power and above all a continental power,’ Turnbull explains.

China has already acquired the capacity to deny the US navy freedom to operate in the ocean between China and what they call the first island chain consisting of Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. Taiwan is within this chain, not marking its peri­meter. This is a consequence not only of China’s economic growth but also and mainly of changes in military technology that have made the US navy’s carrier groups more vulnerable to missile attack. ‘But this does not mean China has gained the ability to control the seas offshore. Each side can deny access to the other, with the proviso that it is generally accepted today that if China sought forcibly to incorporate Taiwan within the People’s Republic, the US would not be able to prevent it other than by a full-scale, probably nuclear, war’.

‘This is the context within which White argues that, as China seeks to play a role in the region commensurate with its regained status as a great power, the US faces three choices. First, it can pack up and pull out, which he considers neither desirable nor likely. Second, it can seek to confront and contain China, which he considers is likely to lead to conflict. Third, the US and China can come to a modus vivendi that ensures competition between them is peaceful’.

Where Turnbull dissents is on White’s conclusion that the third choice and a happy and peaceful outcome requires China and America to forge a ‘concert of powers’ (analogous, if not formally similar, to that which kept peace in Europe after 1815) — a formal set of understandings that would recognise each other’s legitimate roles in the region. Turnbull suggests that this is where White’s argument appears ‘vague’. Turnbull is not persuaded that the US and China need formally to recognise each other’s equality in this way. That might evolve gradually and naturally. Turnbull sees Kissinger’s gradualist evolution to an ‘implicit balance of power’ far more likely and achievable than White’s notion of formalism.

There may be less distance between Turnbull’s and White’s positions than appears at first sight. As White makes clear in this week’s lead essay, ‘if the two powers could reach a tacit or explicit agreement to respect and accept each other’s position as a great power, then there is no reason why they should not live in harmony’.

Why are a bunch of Australians slogging it out about the great strategic choices of our day, while quietness, if not deathly silence, is the response in Washington and Beijing? Yet, as White observes, there are signs of the first flickers of the kind of debate about China that the US needs. In March, Hillary Clinton gave a speech commemorating Nixon’s visit to China 40 years ago with Henry Kissinger, in which she hinted at a radical rethink of the basis of US–China relations. At about the same time, Kissinger himself published an essay in Foreign Affairs addressing the need for both countries to compromise in order to build a new order to minimise the risk of war.

In fact these are also choices that the intellectual advisers of the king and the pretender cannot so readily articulate without making, or undiplomatically claiming, the concessions that will ultimately be required of them, with or without fanfare, it matters not which. And that is why, despite his many critics, including the thoughtful Mr Turnbull, White deserves his particular place in the firmament.

Peter Drysdale

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