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Editorial: Japan's strategy for Asian stability vital amid US-China tensions

Tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan are escalating. In response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, China launched a large-scale military exercise, adding a new dimension of instability to the region.

    Asian countries and regions have been a major driving force behind global economic growth. The region's ties with the U.S., China and Japan through trade and investment have aided the growth of emerging and developing countries. However, the struggle for supremacy between the U.S. and China is shaking the foundations of prosperity.

    Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are afraid of becoming embroiled in the U.S.-China conflict. While the two superpowers are attempting to lure ASEAN countries into their respective camps, none of the member states is looking to choose between the two.

    With regard to tensions around the Taiwan Strait, ASEAN foreign ministers expressed concern in a joint statement, saying the volatility could eventually lead to "serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers." While avoiding explicitly naming the U.S. and China, the statement called for "maximum restraint" among the parties involved and urged them to "refrain from provocative action."

    -- Neighboring countries hesitant to choose sides

    For ASEAN countries, China is their largest trade partner. In an opinion poll, 54.4% of respondents cited China as a country with great political and strategical influence, while the corresponding figure stood at 29.7% for the U.S. and a mere 1.4% for Japan.

    However, ASEAN members are also very wary of China, as the latter continues to engage in intimidating behavior in the South China Sea and make aggressive economic moves in the region. Many ASEAN states are calling for the U.S. and Japan increase their commitment to the region to prevent China's influence from expanding excessively.

    Japan faces a difficult challenge in responding to changes in the power balance in Asia between the U.S. and China, as the Japan-U.S. alliance serves as the axis of Japanese foreign policy.

    Kanagawa University professor Mie Oba, who is versed in politics in Asia, points out, "As the United States' power is becoming less robust, Japan is urged to adopt an omnidirectional diplomacy as its own national power wanes. Japan can strengthen its ties with the U.S. and European countries by exhibiting its uniqueness as an Asian country.

    To avoid Japan being left at the mercy of major powers, it is essential to work in tandem with ASEAN countries in a multifaceted manner.

    Japan is urged to pay consideration to the circumstances faced by other countries and show its willingness to jointly uphold the global order.

    It is about time to review the starting point of Japan's postwar diplomacy in Asia.

    In what is known as the Fukuda Doctrine, or principles of Japan's Southeast Asian diplomacy, based on a speech delivered in Manila by then Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda on Aug. 17, 1977, Fukuda declared that Japan would never again become a military power and promised that his country would establish equal partnerships with Southeast Asian nations.

    Fukuda also set forth a policy of trying to coexist with Vietnam and other countries that belonged to the Communist camp during the Cold War.

    While there was a backlash to Japan's economic advancement amid its booming growth while memories of World War II lingered, Fukuda's stance to respect the region's autonomy and diversity was highly appreciated.

    Forty-five years on, Japan's economic growth has lost its momentum, but the country's relationship of trust with ASEAN members has not wavered.

    The United States has played up a dichotomy of "democracy versus authoritarianism," while China is attempting to maximize its own interests in the region by taking advantage of discord among ASEAN members. Japan should strengthen its ties with ASEAN nations as equal partners -- all the more as major powers are trying to sow division in the region.

    -- Strengthening economic partnerships as leverage

    Japan and ASEAN states face an equal challenge in handling U.S-China tensions. On top of trade and investment, there are many other spheres where Japan and ASEAN members can collaborate, from reinforcing supply chains for essential materials to creating standards for digital technology and promoting decarbonization. It is also important to collaborate with ASEAN states to respond to China's aggressive maritime advancements.

    Lee Kuan Yew, known as the founding father of Singapore, once stated, "If there were no international law and order, and big fish eat small fish and small fish eat shrimps, we wouldn't exist."

    It is in the interests of both Japan and ASEAN to avert a situation guided by "the law of the jungle." Maintaining international order based on rules is also a lifeline for Japan, which has followed a path as a trading nation.

    If Japan, ASEAN and other parties were to deepen their regional economic partnerships, the U.S. and China would not be able to overlook such moves, in spite of their increasingly inward-looking stance.

    In fact, China has made a bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative, while the U.S. has launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

    Japan is part of these international frameworks. It must urge major powers to take constructive action by using these initiatives as leverage.

    To achieve regional stability, it is indispensable for Japan and China to engage in dialogue in a fair and just manner.

    This year, Japan and China mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of their diplomatic ties. Recognition of differences and pursuit of their common interests ought to be the basis of their bilateral relations.

    Japan must draw up a strategy that is not overshadowed by the struggle between major powers.

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