Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in 2016 (Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office/WikiMedia Commons)
With China’s rapid rise over the past few decades, Japan is no longer the leading economic power in Asia. Even worse for Japan, China’s new economic clout has allowed it to expand its political influence across the region. But, rather than sitting idle, Japan has boosted its efforts to cultivate friendly relationships with countries throughout Asia. This strategy has enabled Japan to continue to play a meaningful role in the region, particularly in Southeast Asia. Partly as a consequence, Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have not explicitly prioritized their relationships with China over those with Japan, pointing to the fact that Japan still wields broad influence in the region.
The Underpinnings of Japan’s Influence in Southeast Asia
Though China and South Korea have continued to express outrage over the actions of imperial Japan, Southeast Asian countries have not. Instead, they have emphasized their recent positive interactions with Japan, rather than their World War II experiences with it. Data gathered from the Pew Research Center in 2015 shows that most Southeast Asian countries look favorably upon Japan. Over 70% of Indonesians viewed Japan in a positive light, and 80% of Filipinos and Vietnamese did as well. In contrast, only 12% of Chinese viewed Japan favorably.
One reason for Southeast Asia’s relatively easy reconciliation with Japan is that the period of imperial Japanese occupation in Southeast Asia was far shorter than it was in China or South Korea. As a result, resentment toward Japan did not have as much time to build up in Southeast Asia as it did in Northeast Asia. Thus, Southeast Asian countries were able to move past their resentment and bitterness more quickly. Second, the decades of turmoil that Southeast Asian countries experienced during the Cold War led most of them to prioritize the benefits of their contemporary security and economic engagement with Japan over any lingering historical grievances. Lastly, Japan’s own efforts at cultivating friendly ties have been as strong, if not stronger, in Southeast Asia than those of China. With the election of Shinzō Abe as Japan’s prime minister in 2012, Tokyo further accelerated its efforts to foster new security, economic, and political arrangements with the region.
How Japan Exerts Influence in Southeast Asia
Japan has striven to keep pace with China by forging strong connections in Southeast Asia. Examples of that phenomenon can be found in the rising number of bilateral diplomatic visits between Japan and Southeast Asia, consistent levels of Japanese foreign aid in the region, and the way that each country views Japan from a security standpoint. This study traces Japan’s influence-building efforts across three Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Indonesia was chosen because it is the largest country in the region by population, and the Philippines and Vietnam because of their exposure to China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The number of high profile (ministerial level and above) visits between China and Japan and these three Southeast Asian countries have generally moved in tandem over the last decade (see Figure 1). The figure shows that Japan has maintained a similar level of engagement with each Southeast Asian country as China. Visits between Japan and Indonesia were scarce at the beginning of the decade, but increased sharply since, likely due to increased Japanese-Indonesian security ties and Japanese disaster relief initiatives. Additionally, trends show fewer visits overall between Japan and Vietnam, likely due to ideological differences between their governments. However, an increase in interactions between Japan and Vietnam beginning in 2015 coincides with a downturn in Chinese-Vietnamese visits. Only Japan’s engagement with the Philippines could be seen as lagging, but that relationship has been one of the most consistent over time, holding at an average of just over four per year. These trends can be compared to China and Japan’s visits with each other, which amount to just over one visit per year between the two countries.
Japan’s continued engagement in the region can also be seen in its foreign aid disbursements. Figure 2 shows how much foreign aid that China and Japan have annually pledged to East Asia from 2001 to 2011. As seen in the figure, there has been a sharp rise in Chinese pledges of foreign aid to the region, increasing from 0.9% of worldwide pledged aid in 2001 to 26.5% adecadelater. Standing in contrast, Japanese pledged aid to the region as a percentage of worldwide aid distribution appears to have fallenbyhalf. While that could be interpreted as a loss in Japanese interest, the large drop in percentage terms was only a decrease from $1.3 billion to $1.1 billion in actual funds, as Japanese aid to the rest of the world surged from $4.8 to $8.2 billion. Indeed, Japanese pledged aid to East Asia has hovered above $1 billion per year from 2001 to 2011. While China may have increased its aid commitments to Southeast Asia, Japan has sustained its longstanding interest in the region. That makes sense based on the respective situations of both countries. With a rapidly growing economy and burgeoning government budget, China could afford to show its interest by pledging ever higher sums of aid to East Asia each year. On the other hand, Japan—whose economy and government budget have grown at a paltry pace—has demonstrated its continued interest in the region by pledging a consistent amount of aid, even in the face of growing demands from other areas of the world.
Japan’s efforts to build influence in Southeast Asia have had a noticeable impact. That impact can be seen in the most recent defense papers published by the governments of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These papers, which highlight the security strategies of each country, place equal importance on China and Japan. Indonesia’s white paper emphasizes the economic and security cooperation agreements that it shares with both countries, calling China a “strategic partner” and Japan a “partner in intelligence cooperation, technical training, education and
training, as well as cooperation in economy.” Even though the Philippines has recently tilted toward China in its national security policy, the paper recognizes that the Philippines has unresolved territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands, noting that the conflict causes “intermittent tensions due to the build-up of suspected military structures by some claimant countries in the area.” The paper goes on to emphasize the importance of close relations with Japan. Vietnam also makes sure it holds defense dialogues with both China and Japan.
With Abe’s resounding victory in the Diet’s October 2017 election, Japan is likely to further strengthen its ties with Southeast Asia. Indeed, Japan may become an alternative for those countries in the region that may feel the United States has become distracted or disinterested, especially as American endeavors in Asia have decreased under the current administration. Were China to increase its economic, military, or diplomatic pressure on the region, many countries could turn to Japan, especially if Abe successfully revises the security provisions of Japan’s pacifist Constitution. As long as Japan continues to match China’s overtures in Southeast Asia, the region may prove more difficult to sway toward Beijing than some have come to believe.
 Lam Peng Er, “Japan’s Postwar Reconciliation with Southeast Asia,” Asian Journal of Peacebuilding vol. 3, no. 1 (2015), pp. 43-63.
 The results of this research were controlled for the location of the visits—only within the countries of interest—and excluded multiple meetings during the same visit and meetings that occurred on the sidelines of larger international conferences. Additionally, since data for only half of 2017 was available, this study projected the likely results for the balance of the year.
 The dates from 2001 to 2011 were examined with respect to foreign aid, rather than through 2017, due to limitations in foreign aid information released by the Chinese government which made 2011 the most recent year with reliable data.
 Charles Wolf, Jr., Xiao Wang, and Eric Warner, “China’s Foreign Aid and Government-Sponsored Investment Activities,” RAND Corporation (2013), pp. 1-69
 As the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website does not make the distinction between pledged and delivered aid in its datasets, they have been equated in this study for ease of comparison with Chinese foreign aid data.
 “Defence White Paper,” Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Indonesia, Nov. 20, 2015, pp. 83-84.
 “2011-2016 National Security Policy,” Republic of the Philippines Department of National Defense, Oct. 21, 2010, pp. 13.