There are no standard templates for assessing national interests, and the leaders of the Philippines, Myanmar, and Malaysia have very different configurations of interests. Thus, it is more of a coincidence that their leaders first visited Beijing before Tokyo. The order of their visits was planned for very different reasons, and given that these reasons were based on national security concerns, it is unlikely that the general public will ever know the official rationale.
In the case of Duterte, by logical inference alone, it is a rational choice, given the acute needs to lower the temperatures in the South China Sea, and to tap into Beijing’s resources for development. Both these concerns resonated with his foreign policy desire to make new friends while remaining close to the US-Japan alliance.
In the case of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi may have had an economic rationale to discuss the large-scale projects that were inked during the junta era but which needed reconfiguration after her administration took over in the new era of democratic rule. By comparison, Aung Sun Suu Kyi is already extremely comfortable with her relationship with Japan.
In the case of Malaysia, it was a combination of both strategic and political rationales — discussing and ratifying the two items of Chinese partnership in the railway line from Kuala Lumpur to Kelantan and the purchase of four littoral ships. Both Malaysia and the Philippines, along with others in the original ASEAN-5, are already comfortable in terms of their partnerships with Japan, and will find working with China to be a productive and possibly value-added new infrastructure construction partnership experience.
The ASEAN economy is big enough to accommodate both players. Ultimately, national interests and urgency of agendas may be more important than symbolic conceptualizations of diplomatic protocol. The other big player in the region is Japan. Since the Fukuda doctrine, Japan has been courting ASEAN countries through the use of soft cultural and economic power. They are hugely successful. Japan and the advanced technologies it offers, like other major powers, also represents a hedging counterweight when it comes to the choice of partner for economic development.
Besides Japan and China, South Korea is also emerging in this arena as a middle power candidate for hedging. Hedging itself need not be a negative development if there is friendly rivalry and if ASEAN manages its neutrality and equal outreach to all major powers sitting in the driver’s seat for East Asian regionalism.
There is space for China to offer badly-needed basic infrastructure like railways, port facilities, and highways, while Japan can simultaneously offer high value-added infrastructure that is environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and technologically advanced. Both countries can find their niches, especially since the ASEAN Economic Community came into being on December 31, 2015.
Japan and China offer different experiences and forms of overseas development assistance (ODA), skills transfer, and management knowledge-sharing to the ASEAN countries. China’s experience is offered from the perspective of a large emerging economy from the middle income category with hybrid socialist-market economy experience and a highly centralized political state.
There is much potential for Japan to expand its exports of popular cultural products to the ASEAN Economic Community.
In other words, its experience is complementary with the so-called CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) countries in ASEAN with have similar political structures. For this reason, China’s developmental experience as soft power may be useful for friendly ASEAN states like Cambodia and Laos.
Japan offers developmental experience from a market-driven economy and a democratic society based on social consensus-building. Such experiences are more suitable for the original ASEAN-5 members. Politically, Japan’s experience is relevant to the ASEAN-5’s democratic socio-political structure while it expands its partnerships with the CLMV economies, while sharing its experience in ethical and socially responsible ways of development. For the first-tier cities in Southeast Asia, Japan’s experience as an advanced aging society, along with its economic transition to a service economy, makes it an extremely useful and helpful reference.
Japan’s soft cultural power will always seek new markets for profit-making. It entered the US in the 1990s with Pokémon, and introduced manga and J-pop to China from the 1990s to the 21st century. There is much potential for Japan to expand its exports of popular cultural products to the ASEAN Economic Community. An increase in soft cultural power may not necessarily be a function of Sino-Japanese competition.
Because this is a market-driven venture, its appeal to ASEAN consumers (Cambodia and Laos included) will be dependent on audience resonance and free market responses to its products (the same applies to South Korea’s K-wave as well). Ultimately, the consumer market, not geopolitical competition, will determine the attractiveness of J-pop (or Mandopop, K-pop, C-pop, Bollywood, or Tai Liu for that matter).
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as One Avenue?
There were ambitions for the TPP in the Obama era. If the TPP can knit up other countries where there are no such arrangements yet, then Singapore can also enjoy free trade arrangements with those countries too. TPP was a good platform to lead towards the FTAAP (Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific).
Because the TPP consisted of golden standards in labor issues, intellectual property rights (IPRs), and the environment, it would have been a high-quality demonstrative platform for improving the environment for Asia-Pacific trading activities. For the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and other members of the TPP, it can help to enhance cooperation in economic matters, along with other members of the 12-nation TPP.
Regardless of the TPP’s outcome in the Trump era, many countries in the region remain strong supporters of free trade. Australia and Singapore amongst others in the region have also been supporters of the RCEP from its inception. The RCEP is a traditional free trade agreement that breaks down tariff and non-tariff barriers for 16 countries.
The RCEP can be another platform to reach towards the FTAAP. Both the TPP and RCEP can achieve the FTAAP ambitions. They need not be mutually exclusive. ASEAN member economies will continue to seek other free trade opportunities, including those relevant to the ASEAN Economic Community.