Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings president and chief executive officer Hiroshi Onishi speaking at the opening of a new flagship store in Kuala Lumpur in 2016, which offers high-quality products and lifestyle trends from Japan. FILE PIC

WARY of potential negative reactions to its military and security presence, Japan in the post-World War 2 period has largely relied on private actors like shipping organisations in forming the Malacca Strait Council, or civilian agencies like the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Japan Coast Guard (JCG). These civilian agencies continue to be relied upon heavily, with several significant developments.

Japanese and Philippine coast guard boats held anti-piracy drills in the Philippines in 2015, the first such joint exercise since World War 2. JCG training vessel Kojima has engaged in three-month-long patrols and cooperation training programmes in the region. The Development Cooperation charter was revised in 2015 to enable use of aid more in line with Japan’s national interests. Tokyo’s long-standing support for anti-piracy continues. The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2016, while the first-ever Global Coast Guard Summit was hosted by Tokyo in September last year.

The declaratory position of the Shinzo Abe administration has been clear and consistent: it emphasises Japan’s desire to play a more proactive and visible role in the region. Prime Minister Abe declared to the Australian Parliament in 2014: “So far as national security goes, Japan has been self-absorbed for a long time... We want to make Japan a country that will work to build an international order that upholds the rule of law, in order to make vast seas from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian, and those skies, open and free…”

Japan’s first-ever National Security Strategy depicted the country as a “guardian of the rule of law” to “maintain and develop open and stable seas”. The so-called Abe Doctrine unveiled by Abe himself at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue stated that “Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of Asean as they work to ensure the security of the seas and skies, and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight”.

The Vientiane Vision 2016 presented in Laos for the first time formalised principles and focus areas for Tokyo’s ongoing and future defence cooperation with Asean.

In June last year, the Izumo, Japan’s largest naval vessel since World War 2, conducted a high-profile cruise through Southeast Asia. This included a stop-over in Singapore and other port calls in the region before joining Malabar naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. In Singapore, military officers from Asean countries were invited on board and briefed on the ship’s capabilities.

Tokyo also signed a defence equipment transfer agreement with Manila in February 2016 — its first-ever with a Southeast Asian nation. Five retired Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) TC-90 maritime surveillance airplanes have been leased to the Philippine navy. There are reports of Japan planning to transfer spare parts for the Philippines’ UH-1 Huey helicopters.

In other landmark firsts, in May 2015, Japan-Philippines joint naval exercises were held in the South China Sea for the first time. JS Harusame and Amigri trained with Ramon Alcaraz on “unplanned encounters at sea”. In April 2016, submarine Oyashio and destroyers Ariake and Setagiri arrived in Subic Bay, the Philippines, for a training exercise, the first appearance by a JMSDF submarine in 15 years.

The same two destroyers also sailed into strategic Camh Ranh Bay in Vietnam for the first time since World War 2. Amphibious vessel JS Kunisaki became the primary command platform for the United States-led multinational Pacific Partnership humanitarian assistance mission in 2014, the first time a non-US vessel has assumed command.

Alongside the growing JSDF presence, Japan’s soft power influence is also sizeable. Singapore hosts the first-ever Japan Creative Centre in Southeast Asia, described as a soft-power initiative for Japan to expand its influence and attraction in the region through its pop culture and traditional arts and crafts. The annual Anime Festival held in Singapore and Jakarta has become one of the largest outside Japan.

In 2016, Isetan Mitsukoshi opened a new flagship store in Kuala Lumpur, based on the government-sponsored Cool Japan concept to offer high-quality products and lifestyle trends from Japan. Besides cultural attractions, Japan’s normative soft power potential is expanding towards addressing shared challenges with Asean.

The Asean-Japan Active Ageing Regional Conference has been held annually since 2014. Singapore Health Minister Gan Kim Yong travelled to Japan in 2013 to learn about Japanese experiences in ageing. Under the Japan-Asean Health Initiative, Tokyo helps train 8,000 people over five years to promote health lifestyles and disease prevention.

As Asean urbanises, there is room for cooperation to address shared challenges arising from urbanisation. Tokyo Suido Services (now TSS Tokyo Water) contracted with Bangkok to maintain its water supply system, especially detecting and fixing leaks. JICA is assisting Metro Manila subway projects to alleviate traffic congestion.

Asean has, by and large, not reacted negatively to the increasingly visible JSDF presence, but several obstacles remain. Abe’s 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine drew negative responses from otherwise close partners in Asean. Singapore’s Foreign Ministry stated that “these visits reopen old wounds and damage attempts to build trust and confidence in the region”.

Yee-Kuang Heng is a professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo, Japan. He contributed this article to RSIS Commentary based on a seminar he presented at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, recently.