Japan’s Crucial Role in Southeast Asia amid the Ukraine War

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a moment of reckoning for many international bodies. The implications of the crisis range from questioning the viability of the rules-based order and the fitness of the United Nations system to challenging the concepts of war and defense. And these debates are unfolding as countries face the trickle-down economic effects of sanctions on Russia and other disruptions. As the international community takes different positions on this conflict, the role of influential actors is even more critical. And Japan—both capable and willing to bridge the growing fissure—is increasingly taking on that role.

The war in Ukraine may seem a faraway matter for many not directly involved, and this has been a frequent argument as to why some countries prefer distancing themselves from the issue diplomatically. In Southeast Asia, many have opted to stick with the traditional nonalignment philosophy of not taking sides to avoid being entangled. Other than Singapore, which has decisively condemned Putin’s attack and applied economic sanctions on Moscow, other countries have taken a much lower profile stance. That is due to an array of factors, including relatively positive bilateral relationships with Russia. Vietnam in particular is in a hard place, given that over 80 percent of its defense equipment is supplied by Moscow. For Indonesia and Malaysia, although much less in comparison, Russia is also a major exporter.

Recent voting behavior on UN resolutions regarding the war has revealed the uncomfortable choices that all countries are facing, even those refusing to make one. Due to their own political inclinations and predispositions, Southeast Asian governments are both sensitive to issues of territorial integrity as well as to any criticism over values and morality. Even Singapore abstained in the vote to expel Moscow from the UN Human Rights Council.

Increasingly the global spotlight is on Southeast Asia, particularly countries that this year play a wider regional role. Indonesia chairs the G20, Thailand chairs the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, and Cambodia chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Summit (EAS). There has been increasing diplomatic pressure to exclude Russia from these gatherings, putting their respective chairs in a difficult position. Calls to disinvite Russia from multilateral forums, particularly the G20, may yield a reverse effect if not skillfully applied. For one, it is perceived that pressure comes from the “West,” and if too imposing, may be interpreted as infringing on the host countries’ independence of judgment. Indonesia, even before the war in Ukraine, has on a number of occasions voiced discontent that U.S. diplomats seeking the country’s support against China and other revisionist powers “interferes” with Jakarta’s own independent foreign policy. Yet, it is Indonesia—the region’s largest democracy—that will shoulder more of that diplomatic scrutiny this year, not only by virtue of its G20 chairmanship, but also because it is the only country that sits in ASEAN, APEC, and the G20.

Even if diplomatic influencing is subtly done, there will be limits to how far the Southeast Asian host countries would be willing to go, due not only to their relations with Moscow but also to those with China. So, who could most persuasively engage them?

Six “external powers” share membership in the G20, APEC, and the East Asia Summit: Australia, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Of these, Japan is in the best position to engage in the subtle diplomacy with hosting nations necessary to manage tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Seoul and Canberra also have significant interests in the region, in this critical juncture, they both have been preoccupied with domestic priorities: elections. The Republic of Korea just conducted an election in March, and Australia’s voting date is May 21. Tokyo’s position in Southeast Asia has been comparatively more entrenched. Reaping the benefits of long-term and deeply engaged partnerships in the region, it has enjoyed a consistently high level of trust. One indicator of the trust that Tokyo enjoys is the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s annual survey of regional elite perceptions, in which Japan has continuously been seen as Southeast Asia’s most trusted partner. Despite a minor drop compared with last year, neither the general view of Japan nor Tokyo’s commitment to the region are likely to experience major swings.

Strong economic ties and mutual recognition of interdependence make Southeast Asia and Japan much closer compared to others. Even with regard to conceptions of the Indo-Pacific promoted by a number of countries and institutions, which some in Southeast Asia worry undermine ASEAN centrality, the grouping’s views favor Tokyo’s more inclusive vision of the region. Consecutive leaders of Japan have clearly prioritized Southeast Asia, making a habit of visiting one of the ASEAN capitals as part of their inaugural international travels. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Hanoi in 2012, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also visited Vietnam and Indonesia after taking office in 2020. While Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is relatively new in the position, he already visited Cambodia—this year’s ASEAN and EAS chair—last month. He is reportedly planning another trip to Indonesia, and possibly Thailand or Vietnam, in the coming weeks. Tokyo’s active and skillful diplomacy may not guarantee that it can sway Jakarta, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, or anyone else, but it stands the best chance to engage more constructively.

Amid deepening global divisions over the war in Ukraine and its consequences, Southeast Asia faces trying times. Not only is ASEAN a major representative of smaller- and medium-sized countries, but its members hold significant convening power in other multilateral forums this year. This spotlight will make them appreciate an understanding and subtle partner and interlocutor even more. Japan appears to be such a partner. And while Tokyo’s efforts alone, or in coordination with partners and allies, will not fix the issues that multilateral institutions face, they might prevent further fracturing.

Huong Le Thu is a non-resident adjunct fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Huong Le Thu
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program