Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Japan’s Shrinking ASEAN ‘Soft Power’

ASEAN members remain ambivalent about Tokyo’s political influence. With a stagnant economy and China’s shadow looming large, what can Japan do to regain the initiative?

By Jing Sun for

A recent Yahoo! Japan search for “sofuto pawa,” the Japanese translation for soft power, yielded nearly two and a half million entries. While this number indicates the term’s popularity in Japan, it tells us little about how successful Tokyo has been in employing soft power throughout the Western Pacific.

As I discuss in my new book, Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy, while Japan’s soft power in China and South Korea remains low it has been far more successful in boosting its image in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, Japan’s soft power in the region has been limited to economic issues, and as Japan’s economy has remained stagnate, so too has its soft power. Although China’s recent assertiveness presents an opportunity for Japan to revamp its image among ASEAN members, it’s unlikely that Tokyo will successfully seize this opportunity.

In the initial decades after WWII, Japan’s engagement with Southeast Asia was limited, as Tokyo looked to South Asia for economic opportunities. It was only when those opportunities dried up that Japan found deeper engagement with Southeast Asia unavoidable. While Japanese-ASEAN trade grew rapidly, local populations grew increasingly resentful of Tokyo’s growing economic presence. Indeed, Southeast Asians nicknamed Japan the “economic animal.”

The extent of the region’s grievances became evident in 1974 when then-Prime Minster Tanaka Kakuei was greeted by numerous protesters during his visits to Bangkok and Jakarta. Although Tanaka himself dismissed the protesters as people trying to scapegoat Tokyo for their local problems, his intra-party rival Fukuda Takeo disagreed. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Fukuda decided to change course, starting with a landmark speech to the Filipino parliament in 1977.

Even today, this speech is seen as the beginning of Japan’s charm offensive towards the region, and the principles outlined in the speech are known as the Fukuda Doctrine.

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Japanese leaders rarely give emotional speeches but Fukuda’s speech was an exception. Admitting suspicions and hostilities on the ground, Fukuda passionately pledged that Japan would try and build a “heart-to-heart” relationship with Southeast Asia. To that end, Fukuda pledged that Japan would mobilize all diplomatic resources – political, social, cultural, as well as economic.

Even before the speech, however, Fukuda had begun courting the region. As foreign minister in 1972, for instance, Fukuda recognized Japan’s policy toward Southeast Asia was skewed toward economic issues. He therefore became a leading proponent of the Japan Foundation, a semi-governmental organization in charge of fostering cultural, social, and academic exchanges, and Southeast Asia became a major target for the Foundation’s work.

Fukuda’s 1977 trip also led to the founding of the ASEAN Cultural Fund, a Japanese organization that offered 5 billion yen (US$63.6 million) to foster cultural exchanges within ASEAN as well as between ASEAN and others. The ASEAN Cultural Fund signaled a new mode of Japanese diplomacy that may be termed as “embedded initiative” –Tokyo embeds its initiatives within a multilateral framework and presents them as collective wisdom. In the case of the Cultural Fund, for instance, ASEAN members even have full jurisdiction over the operation of the fund.

Fukuda’s successors would follow his example with remarkable success. According to Japanese foreign ministry’s surveys conducted in five ASEAN member-states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines), the percentage of those who felt Japan’s war atrocities should never be forgotten fell from over 30 percent in 1978 to 20 percent in 2008. During the same period those who felt that the past should be put to rest rose from 37 percent to 68 percent.

In addition, the vast majority of respondents felt their countries’ relations with Japan are “good” or “generally good.” Roughly the same percentage of respondents agreed that Japan could be “trusted” or “generally trusted.” Japan’s charm offensive was solid enough to embolden Japanese Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru to openly call the region Japan’s “power base” in the late 1980’s.

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.

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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).