April 28, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Southeast Asians rank Japan most important partner

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Asean leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, clasp hands at their summit in Tokyo in December.

TOKYO -- An opinion poll conducted in Southeast Asia shows that Japan is considered the most important partner for the region, followed by China and the U.S. Detailed analysis of the results sheds some light on the true feelings of people in the region.

     Ipsos Hong Kong, a research firm commissioned by Japan's Foreign Ministry, conducted the opinion poll on seven countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in March, and received answers from a total of 2,144 people.

     Asked which country they considered an important partner for the region with multiple answers allowed, the respondents cited Japan first (65%), followed by China (48%) and the U.S. (47%). China was ranked No. 1 in the previous poll conducted in 2008.

     To a question on which country would be an important partner for Asean in the future, the result was the same, with Japan ranked first (60%), China second (43%) and the U.S. third (40%).

     Given that China has become the world's second-largest economy, surpassing Japan, and that the U.S. has outstanding security and military power, why was Japan chosen as No. 1 in these questions?

     A senior official at the Foreign Ministry said, "Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited all Asean member states last year and stressed that Japan will actively contribute to the economy and security in the region, and also Abenomics has helped the Japanese economy recover. These factors have led to a higher evaluation of Japan as an important country."

     In other words, active foreign diplomacy and domestic economic recovery led by the Abe administration have pushed up the respondents' evaluations on Japan. Furthermore, Abe invited the region's leaders to the Asean summit in Tokyo last December, which seemed to have contributed to the result of the latest opinion poll as well.

Seeking friends

A closer look at the answers by the respondents of each country revealed other factors. One notable factor is that the countries that have territorial disputes with China put more emphasis on their relationship with Japan.

     For example, the Philippines and Vietnam go head-to-head with China over the Spratly Islands. Fully 76% of respondents in the Philippines chose Japan as a currently important partner, followed by the U.S. (65%) and China (32%). A similar result was found in Vietnam.

     In contrast, in Thailand and Indonesia, which have no conflict with China, there is only a 10-20 point difference between Japan and China, placed No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. Singapore, where there are many Chinese descendants, was the only country among the seven countries polled in which China was ranked first. There were some differences in the results from each country, but they made no difference to the overall total in the seven countries in which Japan was ranked most important. This reflects the fact that many respondents want Japan to increase its presence in the region to ease diplomatic and military pressure by China. More specifically, they may hope that Japan will contribute to maritime security in Asia. The thinking behind this is that if Japan stepped up its economic involvement in the region, it would help reduce its reliance on China.

U.S. loses rank

A worrisome sign in the results is that the number of the respondents who considered the U.S. an important partner was less than for China. It might be because U.S. companies' investments in Asean are smaller than those from Japanese and Chinese companies and also because the U.S. defense budget has been cut significantly.

     Needless to say, the U.S. is the most important for stability in Asia. Having visited Japan, South Korea and Malaysia, U.S. President Barack Obama will proceed to the Philippines. It is no exaggeration to say that the success of his trip to Asia depends on how much he can restore the U.S. presence here.