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Special adviser to the Japanese prime minister, Kentaro Sonoura (second from left), paying a courtesy call on Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at LIMA 2019 on Tuesday.

Japan and Malaysia’s common vision for the region enables them to contribute to maritime order and free trade, says Kentaro Sonoura, the special adviser to the Japanese PM in a written interview with the NST

Q: What is the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and why is it important?

A: Freedom of navigation and openness of sea lanes which extend from East Africa to the west coast of North and South America are of vital importance to the entire world. Moreover, enhanced connectivity will ensure economic prosperity of the region as a whole.

Japan’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific is based on such a deep-rooted recognition. Our vision is straightforward:

We will endeavour to promote and maintain the fundamental principles of international order such as rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade, which are the foundation of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific;

WE will pursue economic prosperity through improving connectivity with quality infrastructure; and,

WE will fulfil our commitment to peace and stability of the region particularly through efforts such as capacity-building assistance as well as cooperation in such fields as HA/DR (humanitarian assistance/disaster relief), anti-piracy, counter-terrorism, and non-proliferation.

Q: How can the region benefit from such a vision?

A: As Asean is the centre of growth in this region and resides at the connecting point of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, Asean members hold the key to the realisation of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The countries in the region are deeply dependent on international trade for their development and prosperity. This, in turn, hinges not only on peace and stability but also on free, open and a rule-based international order. A free and open Indo-Pacific no doubt sets the foundation for achieving these prerequisites for regional prosperity.

Q: What hurdles stand in the way of implementing such a vision?

A: There are a number of challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region, such as piracy, terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, natural disasters and illegal fishing, to name but a few. The nature of these challenges requires that we should make concerted efforts to rid the region of them. An overarching vision such as a free and open Indo-Pacific has not been sought after more than it is today.

Q: What needs to be done to reap the benefits of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision?

A: First and foremost, a shared vision has to be created. In a world where challenges are so formidable and diverse that no one country can solve them alone, a common vision needs to be shared by as many countries as possible to take action. Fortunately, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific has earned tremendous support from many countries, especially in the Asean region.

Japan welcomes the initiative being taken by Asean to formulate an Asean take on the Indo-Pacific cooperation, which has striking similarity to our vision in many important ways.

Secondly, in order for us to reap the benefits of the vision, we have to take action. The actions can take many different forms with different magnitudes depending on the type of challenge we are dealing with.

Among others, enhancing regional connectivity through expanding a web of quality infrastructure, ramping up maritime security cooperation and propagating a rule-based order including freedom of navigation and a free-trade system are of great importance.

Q: What is Japan doing to ensure such a vision is put in place?

A: In terms of the actions I touched upon in the previous question, Japan has engaged in many infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region. One notable effort is our quality infrastructure investment in the Mekong region, where Japan has been contributing to the development of the “Southern Economic Corridor” and the “East-West Economic Corridor”. These projects connect the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean across borders. The former also connects metropolitan cities such as Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Bangkok, and the latter creates connectivity between the inland areas of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar to the two oceans. The roads and bridges that will be built by Japan for these corridors will contribute to doubling or even tripling the volume of commercial traffic as well as to reducing travel time by half. Additionally, the electronic customs clearance system Japan introduced in Vietnam and Myanmar has reduced processing time from 15 minutes to 1 to 3 seconds.

For maritime security cooperation, Japan has provided patrol vessels to littoral countries including Malaysia. We also have partnerships with foreign coast guard agencies and provide capacity-development assistance by means of dispatching experts and holding seminars. With regard to a rule-based order, Japan has been a major advocate of freedom of navigation and rule-based maritime order, including adherence to UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).

We also subscribe to enhancing a rule-based and multilateral trade order. Notable recent efforts include the leading role Japan played in the entry into force of TPP11 (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), and the ongoing commitment to the early conclusion of a high quality RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership).

Q: How can Japan and Malaysia work together to make this vision happen?

A: Japan and Malaysia share common interests such as a rule-based international maritime order, and free and open international trade. The geographical location of Malaysia, which faces the South China Sea and connects the region to the Indian Ocean through the Straits of Malacca, gives it a central place in Indo-Pacific. Japan depends on international trade for its prosperity, and energy resources we import in particular rely heavily on the Straits of Malacca. In addition, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, is the father of the Look East Policy, which has contributed to the development of young Malaysians by means of learning the values Japan embraces.

These common foundations of our bilateral relationship enable us to work closely together in achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific. As strong supporters and proponents of the principles comprising the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, Japan and Malaysia can make joint efforts in securing the maritime order, enhancing free trade and contributing to peace and security through both bilateral cooperation and advocacy in the international fora.

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