EDITORIAL: Abe should not try to divide Asian countries into friends and foes

January 15, 2013

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week will get his foreign policy machinery up and running by making his first overseas trip since taking office late last year.

Abe will visit the three Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia during a four-day tour starting on Jan. 16.

Abe has chosen the three countries for his first major diplomatic move partly because he had to postpone his visit to the United States due to President Barack Obama’s tight schedule. But Abe’s tour will come on the heels of visits earlier this month to member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

All these trips to Southeast Asia by top administration officials clearly underscore the importance of the region for the Abe administration’s diplomatic agenda.

Many other countries are also interested in strengthening their relations with this region. In November, President Obama visited Southeast Asia in his first overseas tour since his re-election. Last month, India held its summit with ASEAN in New Delhi for the first time and declared the upgrading of the bilateral relations to a “strategic partnership.”

Both the United States and India are trying to enhance their ties with ASEAN, the center of economic growth in the world, to stoke their own economic growth. At the same time, their moves are aimed at curbing the expansion of China’s influence in the region.

Some ASEAN members are locked in territorial disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea. Japan, which is entangled in a similar sovereignty dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, share common security interests with these Southeast Asian nations.

As a purpose of his upcoming tour in the region, Abe has cited expansion of Japan’s security cooperation with the countries he will visit. This apparently reflects his desire to ensure that Japan and these Southeast Asian countries will rise together to the challenge of growing maritime tensions.

It is vital for countries facing challenges posed by China’s growing economic and military power to bolster their cooperation.

But there are differences among ASEAN members in their stances toward China. Any move that creates the perception that Japan is working with the United States to contain China’s expansion could cause a rift among ASEAN countries.

Also worrisome is Abe’s pledge to pursue “diplomacy based on values,” which means strengthening Japan’s cooperation with countries that share common values like freedom and democracy. Instead of trying to divide countries into friends and foes of Japan, Abe should adopt more nuanced diplomacy that pays sufficient attention to the complicated situations of individual countries.

What Japan should do is to seek support from countries in the region to its efforts to settle territorial and other international disputes according to international law while helping the entire region’s development through economic aid.

We hope Abe remembers former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda’s Southeast Asian tour in 1977.

In a speech delivered in Manila, Fukuda announced the “Fukuda Doctrine” about Japan’s diplomacy. He declared that Japan would never become a military power and would do its best to build a relationship of true friendship and mutual trust based on “heart-to-heart” understanding with Southeast Asian nations. These principles have since set the basic tone for Japan’s foreign policy toward Asia.

We strongly hope that Abe, who shares many of Fukuda’s political tenets, will adopt a diplomatic agenda designed to ease tensions in Asia and contribute to peace and prosperity in the region.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 15

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