Kishida’s outreach

Two days after the mass resignation of ministers involved in a fundraising scandal, on 13-14 December 2023, an event that caused Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s popularity rating to plummet below 20 per cent and cause political turmoil

Kishida’s outreach

Representation image

Two days after the mass resignation of ministers involved in a fundraising scandal, on 13-14 December 2023, an event that caused Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s popularity rating to plummet below 20 per cent and cause political turmoil, the Japanese leader hosted a special Japan Aswan summit on 16-18 December, commemorating the 50th year of Japan-Asean Friendship and Cooperation.

Kishida was supported by Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa who had retained her job having taken over in September 2023. While Kishida hailed the next 50 years of Japan-Asean relations, Kamikawa highlighted women’s role in conflict prevention at the Tokyo summit. Though the economic component in Japan’s ties with the Asean bloc has been constant, there is a security dimension, in particular maritime security, that has taken centre stage.

The Asean group is very different from, for example, the European Union which is more monolithic. As members of the group, they hold a diverse range of views on geopolitical matters and do not view China’s belligerence from the same prism. Some members such as Cambodia and Myanmar (the latter was not invited to the summit because of the coup in February 2021) are perceived to be beholden to China for its economic support to these countries.


This has not deterred the group in general from choosing a friendly approach towards Japan. In fact, Japan is the region’s most trusted and familiar outside partner. Japan has won the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians through cultural exchanges, official development assistance, foreign direct investment and soft power. These aspects make the special Japan-Asean summit significant. Japan pledged to provide $170 million in financial assistance to Cambodia to improve rural healthcare and various development projects, while both countries pledged to consolidate their comprehensive strategic partnership.

The pledge came during a meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet and Kishida on 18 December held on the side-lines of the Commemorative Summit and the AZEC Summit. Japan and Cambodia upgraded their bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership this year, on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations. Japanese FDI has played a significant role in the economic development of Asean member countries. Over the past decade, Japanese FDI in ASEAN countries totalled $198 billion, behind America’s $209 billion but beating China’s $106 billion.

For Japan, the ASEAN market is very attractive. The region’s overall GDP is expected to overtake Japan’s by around 2030. Asean is also part of the Global South, which is increasing its influence. Japanese cuisine has gained immense popularity in many Asean countries. For example, in 2022 there were more than 5,000 Japanese restaurants in Thailand alone. Interestingly, Japanese beef bowls are localised with Thai spices and seasoning. Similarly, like the highly popular Indian rice and curry dish on the Japanese plate, Thai chicken rice stores in Japan are making roaring business as demand for Thai food continues to grow.

The trend towards fusion dishes in Asian restaurants has added another dimension to the relationship. No wonder Kishida has put a special focus to make Japan’s ties with Asean broad-based and hopes that Asean can serve as a touchstone for building a relationship of trust between Japan and developing countries in other parts of the world. Since becoming Prime Minister Kishada has visited several Asean countries, the most recent trip being to Malaysia and the Philippines. In each of his visits, Kishida has tried to strengthen people-to-people connections, hereby honing the cultural component of the relationship with the region.

As mentioned, enhancing cooperation on the security aspect with likeminded countries has emerged as a new dimension in Japan’s foreign policy focus. This is in line with the security strategy adopted by Japan in December 2022. The main driver of this policy is to prevent China from unilaterally changing the status quo in the Indo-Pacific by force. Capacity building in the maritime domain is a priority in the changed situation. With this in mind, Japan offered a grant of $2.8 million to boost Malaysia’s maritime defence. Kishida also applauded the elevation of the Japan-Malaysia relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.

A similar arrangement was reached recently with the Philippines. The country has placed an order for coastal surveillance radars, paid for with Japanese money. Since Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos became president of the Philippines in May 2023, its coast guard has conducted joint exercises with Japan and the US. Commemorating the special anniversary of the 50th year of Japan-ASEAN cooperation and friendship, Kishida resolved to build a partnership between Japan and ASEAN and co-create the future of the Indo-Pacific based on trust anchored in history and reflecting the vitality of the region and the importance of the relationship to its future security and prosperity.

Kishida observed that since he became Japan’s foreign minister and then Prime Minister, he has visited Asean countries 32 times and was impressed that Asean has become a global growth centre. Among the main points made by him was (1) trust built over the years has become the hallmark of the Japan-Asean partnership; (2) people-to-people and heart-to-heart connections; (3) Trusted Partners through many challenges such as the 1997 Asian currency crisis, the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and the Covid-19 pandemic from 2019; (4) facing challenges together such as the Ukraine crisis, South China Sea, Myanmar and North Korean threat; (5) stability and prosperity of ASEAN; (6) Shared Principles, Asean support for the realization of a Free and Open IndoPacific or AOIP; and (7) Relationship and Young leaders.

The joint vision statement highlighted areas of future cooperation, such as maritime security and supply chains. The wording of the statement was rather vague in order not to upset China from whom some of the Asean members receive large amounts of financial assistance and are seen as holding a pro-China stance. In particular, while Cambodia’s cosiness with China is well known, Vietnam is seen as “inbetweener”. The fact that Vietnam’s PM Pham Minh Chinh arrived in Tokyo for the Summit just a few days after China’s leader Xi Jinping was in Hanoi could not be overlooked in assessing Vietnam’s Japan policy.

(The writer is former Senior Fellow at Pradhanmantri Memorial Museum and Library (PMML), New Delhi. Earlier he was ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, and Senior Fellow at the MP-IDSA, New Delhi)