It has been 40 years since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Japan started exchanges for cooperation.
The Japanese government offered official development assistance (ODA) worth about 2 trillion yen ($19.4 billion) on Dec. 14 at a summit in Tokyo to leaders of the 10 member countries. The participants also released a joint statement pledging a partnership for peace, stability and prosperity.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been engaged in diplomacy with ASEAN since assuming his post a year ago, visiting all the 10 member countries. The latest summit meeting with their leaders implies that he has put the finishing touches on that effort.
The Abe administration is seeking closer ties with ASEAN, wanting to absorb the dynamism of a rapidly growing Southeast Asia into the Japanese economy and hoping to stop the spread of Chinese influence.
However, we do not feel enthusiasm from the Abe administration for spreading “universal values,” such as human rights and democracy, which it is advocating as key goals in its diplomatic policies.
The administration is apparently neglecting these democratization and human rights principles to devote itself too much to measures to counter China.
In January this year, Abe announced the Five Principles for diplomacy with ASEAN. It was touted as the first major diplomatic policy since the 1977 “Fukuda Doctrine,” in which then Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda pledged, “Japan will never become a military power.”
The first principle of the “Abe Doctrine” is that Japan will make efforts to establish and expand universal values, such as freedom, democracy and basic human rights.
ASEAN consists of a variety of countries whose stages of development, religions, languages and races are different. Some are under authoritarian one-party rule and others have not experienced a change of power. It cannot be said that many of them are placing importance on freedom and human rights.
Preaching “universal values” to such countries requires a faith in those values. That is because such preaching is an expostulation they do not want to hear.
China, which is competing with Japan in offering ODA and is a rival in the trade sector, does not urge these nations to place importance on such universal values. Therefore, given the competition with China, it is apparently more difficult for Japan to preach these values.
In the latest summit with ASEAN leaders, Abe advocated the importance of the rule of law in the seas and the skies, with China squarely in mind. On the other hand, in the summit or during his visits to the ASEAN nations, he has not actively urged their leaders to respect human rights and promote democratization.
There should be issues he has to discuss frankly in his meetings with those leaders based on the circumstances of their countries.
For example, what does he think about the situation in Thailand, in which anti-government groups are occupying some government buildings? Is democracy in Cambodia making progress after the general election in July?
If Abe does not talk about universal values, those principles will not spread. The leaders of the ASEAN countries will regard those values as just cliche to counter China.
If Abe devotes himself too much to narrow-minded diplomacy that pursues only Japanese interests, ASEAN leaders could cast doubts on Japan’s stance that it is respecting universal values.