Takeshita’s statement, however, greatly overstated Japan’s influence in ASEAN, which has declined ever since. The crux of Tokyo’s problems is that ASEAN members, while attracted to Japan’s economic, scientific successes, and cultural vibrancy remain ambivalent about Tokyo’s political influence. For example, a 2008 foreign ministry’s survey showed economic and technological cooperation was the top area that the public in six key ASEAN countries [Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam] would like to see Japan become more active in, with 66 percent choosing this category. By contrast, only six percent of the ASEAN respondents were eager to see Japan enhance its military presence. This was a far cry from a power base for Tokyo.
The one-dimensional nature of Japan’s image in the region is particularly detrimental because Japan’s economic performance has progressively worsened since the 1980’s, while China’s economy has grown rapidly. Although China didn’t begin trying to woo ASEAN members in earnest until the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis-when Beijing resisted the temptation to devalue its currency- it has outpaced Tokyo in this area for much of the period since. Indeed, even though Japan contributed far more than China in numerical terms to solve the financial crisis, the latter received more praise, including from the U.S.
Here lies the core dilemma for Japan’s charm offensive: Tokyo did not intensify its effort to propagate Japan’s soft power until the country’s hard power was in relative decline. Seen from this perspective, Japan’s soft power offensive is based more on its dwindling grandeur and a lack of other viable policies. As Japan’s economic malaise is likely to continue and its politicians look incompetent. Tokyo would find it hard to justify its relevance as a model to any international audience.
Beijing’s growing assertiveness towards Southeast Asian countries seems to offer Japan a chance to present itself as an alternative to China. But this is partially undercut by an intra-ASEAN divide between attitudes towards China and Japan. The aforementioned six-country survey shows a near-perfect intra-ASEAN divide: people in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand saw China as the most important partner and continued to believe it will be in the future. Meanwhile, people in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam saw Japan as the most important partner and also continued to believe so for the future (henceforth the Japan Group). This intra-ASEAN schism was once again exposed earlier this month when Cambodia, as chair of ASEAN, blocked the Filipino and Vietnamese effort of presenting a united front to Beijing on accepting a code of conduct in disputed waters.
While neither China’s nor Japan’s charm was accepted unanimously, Japan’s problem is that its future importance declines across the board. The survey shows that citizens in five of the six countries felt Beijing’s importance would grow in the years ahead (including all the Japan Group members). Even where China’s importance is expected to decline slightly in Singapore, this is due to Singaporeans believing that India’s importance will grow from 2% as a “present partner” to 24% in the future. At a mere 4%, Japan’s importance among Singaporeans is negligible.
Thus, while China’s growing assertiveness on the South China Sea issue may suggest that Beijing is abandoning its charm offensive, Tokyo’s ability to seize this opportunity is limited by its dim economic outlook and by intra-ASEAN divide.
Jing Sun is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy (University of Michigan Press, 2012).