The Latest on Southeast Asia: December 21, 2023

On December 17, Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio hosted Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders at a Commemorative Summit for the 50th Year of ASEAN-Japan Friendship. Japan and Indonesia, co-chairs of the summit, were joined by leaders from eight Southeast Asian nations (excluding Myanmar), the secretary general of ASEAN, and Timor-Leste’s prime minister who attended as an observer. On the sidelines of the summit, Prime Minister Kishida conducted a series of bilateral meetings with his counterparts to shore up ties, while Japan’s minister for foreign affairs Kamikawa Yoko also met with her ASEAN counterparts.

Summit participants examined the last 50 years of ASEAN-Japan relations and looked forward to the future of their “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The summit featured a long list of deliverables, most of which focused on economic cooperation. But security partnerships and especially maritime security cooperation featured prominently—a reflection of rising tensions between China and Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea as well as Japan’s emerging role as a regional security provider, including through its new Official Security Assistance (OSA) program.

The day before the commemorative summit, Kishida met with Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, announcing the elevation of Malaysia-Japan relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Under the auspices of Japan’s OSA program, Kishida pledged further support to strengthening Malaysia’s maritime security capacity with rescue boats and drones. To further promote bilateral security cooperation, Malaysia and Japan plan to host a strategic dialogue to share views on regional and international challenges.

Joined by a few key ministers, Kishida also met with Vietnamese prime minister Pham Minh Chinh’s delegation on December 16 to explore future possibilities for deepening the Vietnam-Japan relationship. Building upon the announcement of a Japan-Vietnam comprehensive strategic partnership in late November, Chinh and Kishida agreed to boost the two countries’ defense exchanges and increase future cooperation in the transfer of defense equipment. In this spirit, the coast guards of Japan and Vietnam held their 10th bilateral meeting on December 20, reviewing their cooperation activities and agreeing to work toward more joint training, information sharing, and capacity building. 

In Kishida’s meeting with Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. on December 17, the two leaders discussed the provision of radar systems to the Philippines under Japan’s OSA, aiming to enhance cooperation in maritime capacity building. The first of the air radar systems began operations in La Union, on the northwest coast of Luzon, later that week. Kishida and Marcos also recommitted to the early conclusion of a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), which will allow Japanese and Philippine troops reciprocal access to each other’s territory for training and exercises. The two sides held the first official round of RAA negotiations in late November.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative