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Opinion

Suga gives Southeast Asia credible options besides China

Japan support crucial for a region struggling to counterbalance Beijing

| Japan
Yoshihide Suga, right, and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc during a welcome ceremony in Hanoi, pictured on Oct. 19: Suga deftly built on the strategic momentum.   © Reuters

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

Speaking to the Americans about his concerns over Beijing's rising influence in Southeast Asia, the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew urged the U.S. to "give the region options besides China."

To the dismay of many regional leaders, successive U.S. administrations have failed to heed Lee's advice.

While the Obama administration struggled to secure support even among fellow Democrats for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement trade deal, Donald Trump embraced protectionism and a disruptive trade war with China.

Which makes the first overseas trip by Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga all the more consequential. By choosing Vietnam and Indonesia as first destinations abroad, Suga has underscored Japan's commitment to Southeast Asia, as well as providing a counterbalance to China.

Expanding Japan's defense and strategic ties with both Vietnam and Indonesia, Suga emphasized the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to regional security, and reinforced Japan's "free and open Indo-Pacific" policy.

While Japan's global influence may have ebbed since the 1980s, it has remained a pivotal strategic player in Southeast Asia. Despite all the brouhaha over China's Belt and Road Initiative, it is actually Japan that continues to be a leading source of big-ticket infrastructure investments in the region. Crucially, Japan is also emerging as a major defense partner.

This is partly due to Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe, who brought a measure of stability and confidence that was painfully missing during the "lost decades" of economic stagnation. As Prime Minister, Abe visited over 40 developing countries, pledging massive aid, investment and trade deals. Abe skillfully navigated Southeast Asia's political shifts, building a personal rapport with the most mercurial of leaders.

The first foreign leader to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Abe helped to mediate disagreements between Manila and Washington over human rights issues, with Duterte praising Abe as "closer than a brother."

Duterte praised Abe as "closer than a brother."   © Reuters

A key part of Japan's Southeast Asia policy under Abe was its economic outreach, with Tokyo launching its own $110 billion infrastructure investment fund for Asia. This has allowed Japan to consolidate its place in the region through a wave of investment. Despite all the talk about China's Belt and Road Initiative, Japan's $367 billion worth of investment makes China's $255 billion in commitments look small.

While China dominates smaller states such as Cambodia and Laos, Japan has been a major driver of infrastructure development in Vietnam. Indonesia, Southeast Asia's biggest country, has turned to Japan for assistance in resuscitating botched Chinese projects such as the much-ballyhooed Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail link. In the Philippines, the region's second largest nation, big-ticket Japanese projects have eclipsed mostly unfulfilled Chinese promises. Instead of just trying to match China on the numbers, Japan prioritized quality and sustainable investment.

Japan's Connectivity Initiative has boosted the effectiveness of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative in denting China's predatory investment practices by emphasizing rule of law, environmental standards, and debt sustainability. Even more impressive has been Japan's transformation into one of the region's most important security partners.

Ramping up defense spending, Japan pursued its own first aircraft carrier and domestically-built stealth fighters, and for the first time since the end of World War II has deployed armored vehicles for overseas military exercises in the Philippines. In fact, Japan has been at the forefront of enhancing the maritime security capabilities in the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia as each nation tries to counter China's aggressive South China Sea expansionism.

In his recent visit to Hanoi, Suga deftly built on this strategic momentum. Not shying away from criticizing China's "move in the South China Sea that goes against the rule of law and openness," Suga reiterated that "Japan strongly opposes any attempt that escalates tensions" in the highly contested waters.

Suga signed a new defense deal with Vietnam that will enhance Japan's military aid including the provision of advanced weapons systems. In Jakarta, Suga pushed for the institutionalization of "two plus two" talks between top defense and foreign policy officials from Japan and Indonesia.

At the same time, Suga showed his support for the swift restoration of trade and travel between Japan and its Southeast Asian partners when the COVID-19 crisis subsides, and pledged $470 million in economic assistance to help Indonesian President Joko Widodo manage his country's response to the pandemic.

The timing of Suga's visit was particularly important, coming just weeks after Tokyo hosted a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the U.S., Australia, India and Japan. With his visit to Vietnam and Indonesia, Suga reassured ASEAN nations that they won't be sidelined by great power rivalries when it comes to shaping an inclusive regional security architecture.

Voicing his full support for ASEAN's Indo-Pacific policy -- largely crafted by Indonesia -- Suga said it "has a lot of fundamental commonalities with Japan's free and open Indo-Pacific." President Widodo seemed visibly pleased with Japan's commitment to ASEAN, especially given the "increasingly sharp rivalries between the world's superpower nations."

Japan's continued and comprehensive engagement with the region provides Southeast Asian with a sure hedge against the wild swings in American foreign policy, and an important bulwark against China's worst instincts as well.

Make no mistake, Suga -- and Abe -- have shown that Japan is quite capable of giving Southeast Asia credible options beside China.

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