ASEAN’s engagements with its Partners during the COVID-19 pandemic under the Chairmanship of Vietnam through digital platforms are notable for their substance, commitment and persistence. In the league of ASEAN’s Partners, Japan has figured prominently.
Bilateral Trade and Foreign Direct Investments
ASEAN and Japan are important trading partners and as per the data compiled by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), the bilateral trade was $214 billion in 2019. In June 2020, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs notified the ASEAN countries about the amendments to the ASEAN-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership (AJCEP) which would now allow for more cross-border flow of investment and services. ASEAN countries also emerged as the most popular destination for Japanese companies that were moving out of China since 2018 first due to US-China tensions and now COVID-19. According to a survey by the JETRO the “gap between the amount of (Japanese) investment to ASEAN and China expanded to 20.4 billion yen ($191 million) in 2019 from 10.2 billion yen in 2017.”
ASEAN-Japan Economic Resilience Action Plan
Of particular interest in the current ASEAN-Japan relationship is the adoption of the ASEAN-Japan Economic Resilience Action Plan (AJERAP)on 22 April 2020 under the co-chairmanship of Vietnamese Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh and Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Kajiyama Hiroshi. The “Joint Statement on Initiatives on Economic Resilience in Response to the Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak” notes that officials from both sides had been tasked to explore and identify actions to accomplish, in a timely manner, the three objectives i.e. (a) sustaining the close economic ties developed by ASEAN and Japan; (b) mitigating the adverse impact of COVID-19 on the economy; and (c) strengthening economic resilience through the AJERAP in response to the economic challenges brought by the COVID-19 outbreak pandemic.Both sides are confident of timely execution and implementation of the AJERAP based on “diversity, transparency, and sustainability in building a firm supply chain in the industrial sector”.
Although the AJERAP initiative is at the bilateral level, Japan has also promoted its engagements with the ASEAN under the ASEAN Plus Three (Japan, China and the ROK). The Joint Statement emerging from their interactions in June 2020, the Ministers agreed to support ASEAN to recover economically from the pandemic. They also announced their commitment to pursue and sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement in 2020 by “working together to resolve India’s outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way, as mandated in the Joint Leaders’ Statement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) issued in 2019 as part of efforts to achieve a higher level of regional economic integration”.
Defence and Security Cooperation
Japan’s defence and security cooperation with the ASEAN merits elaboration. It supports ASEAN led defence and security cooperation mechanisms and has been a proactive capacity builder for ASEAN Member States.In 2006, it set up the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) located at Singapore, the first regional government-to-government agreement to promote and enhance cooperation against piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia.
In November 2019, Japan announced the launch of Vientiane Vision 2.0 during the Japan-ASEAN defense ministers’ informal meeting to enhance regional security through ASEAN-Japan defense collaboration “focusing on ensuring the rule of law, strengthening maritime security, and contending with non-traditional threats”. More recently, Japan announced the Defense Policy Bureau, a new position in its Defense Ministry, to address issues related to the ASEAN and Pacific islands to further strengthen “security cooperation in line with the government’s concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
In March 2020, both sides affirmed their strategic partnership at the 14th ASEAN-Japan Joint Cooperation Committee Meeting to further advance their partnership and identified several priority areas (for 2020) for cooperation through “supporting programmes and projects in the areas of maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals, economic and other areas such as digital economy, MSMEs, disaster management”.
Japan has also been in the forefront to provide training and supply maritime platforms to some ASEAN Member States to help them build capacities to counter threats at sea. In August 2020, Japan signed a $345 million loan agreement with Vietnam to provide six patrol boats to “boost its maritime law enforcement capabilities” in the South China Sea. Earlier, Japan had agreed to help Philippines redevelop Subic Bay, the former U.S. naval base and had agreed to cooperate in “drawing up a master plan, which would bring out potential for economic development in the Subic Bay area,” In September 2020, Japan also announced that Mitsubishi Electric Corp. (Melco) will provide three “fixed long-range air surveillance radars, each with building facilities and one mobile air surveillance radar, which are expected to be delivered to the Philippines starting in 2022”.
Finally, the above Japanese initiatives cut across domains particularly economy, security and health and is emblematic of the deep relationship and strong bonds between the ASEAN and Japan that have flourished over several decades. These gain greater relevance when the ASEAN countries are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis and US-China tensions over South China Sea.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant KalingaInternational Foundation, New Delhi.