Japan: A trusted partner

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - May 19, 2019 - 12:00am

Conventional wisdom dictates that Southeast Asia has become a region caught between two powers – China and the United States. Another often repeated mantra is that China is now the main source of investments – especially infrastructure funds – in the region. Both conclusions are actually contestable. Any geopolitical observer will note that there is a third power that is quietly but effectively making its influence felt in the region.

Japan is the third power that is actively wooing Southeast Asia. Ever since the rise of China, Japan has been pushed out of the spotlight. However, in the last five to six years, its investments in Southeast Asia have increased dramatically and has become involved in the South China Sea.

A recent analysis by Stratfor concluded: “ To be sure, Japan has always maintained engagement with the wider region. It played a role in stabilizing regional currencies in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and has long championed multilateral economic and security platforms. It has extensive investments in most countries in the region particularly Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam – in fact the country still has higher investment stock in Southeast Asia than China, thanks in part to its integrated supply chains. What’s more, it remains Southeast Asia’s top aid donor and wields a great deal of soft power that helps offset its limited overseas security presence.”

In the Philippines construction recently began on the first subway in the country. This is the 36-kilometer Metro Manila Subway, an estimated $4.5 billion project which will run north to south between the cities of Quezon City, Pasig, Makati, Taguig and Pasay and will serve 15 stations between the Quirino Highway and FTI stations. It will also serve as the country’s direct link, with a branch line to Ninoy Aquino International Airport. This project is called Metro Manila Subway Line 9 because it is designed to connect with other lines – existing and planned. Among the planned lines are Line 5 (Makati Subway) and Line 8 (PNR East –West Railway). A consortium of four Japanese companies has already reportedly won the contract to undertake the project. The Japanese government will also help in covering the expenses of the line and the first part of a 104.5 billion yen was already signed. This is the biggest infrastructure project of the Duterte administration.

Early this year, the Philippines also secured $1.24 billion worth of investment pledges from Japanese firms that can create 16,000 jobs in the country. The biggest projects are ISE Foods which will invest in a large scale poultry farm and Sumitomo Wiring Systems which will set up a manufacturing facility that will produce wire harness systems for auto vehicles. Other potential investments Tokyo intends to advance are urban development projects with focuses on the environment and the so-called smart city infrastructure.

The main difference between Chinese and Japanese investments is that Japanese projects actually reach implementation stage and do not require the importation of foreign laborers.

Another new development for Japan is that it has become a trusted nation. According to Stratfor: “Indeed, although Japan’s wartime legacy in both China and the two Koreas continue to haunt the country, its adoption of pacifist doctrine after World War II has earned it a favorable image in South Asia and Southeast Asia – particularly as states in these regions find themselves constantly attempting to fend off the United States or China. And while political expediency might force countries in these two regions to side with either of the bigger powers, public opinion in their countries frequently ranks Japan as one of the most trustworthy countries in the world.”

The Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) conducted a poll among 1,000 intellectuals in the ten-member ASEAN countries. Japan was singled out by 65.9 percent of respondents – much higher than any other country – as the major power that will do the “right thing” in contributing to global peace, security, prosperity and governance. The European Union placed second with 41.3 percent, and China with 19.6 percent.

Conversely, 51.5 percent of all ASEAN respondents put China at the top of the “distrust” rankings of major powers, compared to 17.0 percent for Japan. China was criticized for acting in disregard of international law, building artificial islands in the South China Sea for use as military bases and threatening freedom of navigation. On the economic front, China was also criticized for rushing to establish hegemony over the Southeast Asian region by shackling partner nations with heavy debt burden through its Belt and Road initiative.

The great power rivalry seems to be escalating as evidenced by the current trade war and tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan. The ASEAN states, forced to constantly balance between the United States and China, could increasingly turn to Japan as a third alternative. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has visited Japan three times since his election last year. Philippine President Duterte may be plotting a course more toward China, but he has retained Japan as a close partner for his multifaceted economic and security priorities. Duterte is set to visit Japan again this year.

The rapid shifts in geopolitics – due mainly to China’s rise – have compelled Japan to come out of its shell and engage more proactively with other countries of the Indo-Pacific. A resurgent Japan offers other countries a chance to team with a trusted partner, instead of choosing between the United States and China.

It is also fortunate that at this critical geopolitical juncture, the Philippines has an ideal person as ambassador to Japan – Jose Laurel V. He has had long years of business and personal dealings with the top members of Japanese society; and, the Laurel family has a long historic tradition of close ties with the Japanese people.

I think I can safely predict that cooperation between the Philippines and Japan will be a cornerstone of this nation’s foreign policy.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on May 25, June 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration,  email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com


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