The Latest on Southeast Asia: November 9, 2023

Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio met with Southeast Asian partners this week, seeking to shore up defense partnerships as a counterweight to China. The volatile situation in the South China Sea, recently exacerbated by collisions between Philippine and Chinese vessels in late October, underscored the importance of Japan’s continued support for its Southeast Asian partners.

On November 3 and 4, Kishida visited the Philippines, where he met with Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. to discuss economic assistance and defense cooperation, among other topics. Touting a “golden age” in Philippine-Japanese relations, the two leaders emphasized the importance of boosting bilateral defense cooperation. Together, they announced the start of negotiations for Japan’s first-ever Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) with a Southeast Asian nation. Like the U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement, the RAA would allow Japanese troops access to the Philippines for training and support purposes. Japan also committed 12 ships to the Philippine Coast Guard to augment its capabilities.

In addition, Kishida and Marcos announced Japan’s intent to deliver surveillance radar to the Philippines under the auspices of Japan’s Official Security Assistance (OSA) program. The recently introduced OSA program, of which the Philippines is the first beneficiary, aims to strengthen the capabilities of Japan’s partner countries through the provision of defense equipment and the promotion of infrastructure development. Other than the Philippines, Japan plans to roll out OSA assistance to Bangladesh, Fiji, and Malaysia through March 2024.

Following his trip to the Philippines, Kishida visited Malaysia on November 4 and 5 to discuss several topics, including defense cooperation. Prime Minister Kishida and Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim affirmed their commitment to accelerate the implementation of OSA projects, as well as bolstering future Japan-Malaysia maritime cooperation through joint training and exchanges. Moreover, Kishida and Anwar discussed Malaysia’s commitment to ensure a steady supply of liquefied natural gas to Japan, which is seeking to diversify its energy resources.

The United States is also gearing up for a series of high-level engagements with regional partners. On November 9, U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin departed for a multi-country trip ending in Indonesia, where he will attend the 10th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus. Austin expressed his interest in meeting with his yet-unnamed Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the summit to discuss pressing defense and security issues.

Next week, the United States will host the APEC Leader’s Meeting in San Francisco from November 11 to 17. APEC includes 7 of 10 ASEAN states—all but Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar—each of which will be represented at APEC by their heads of state or government. All 7 have also been among the 14 states negotiating the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the outcomes of which are expected to be unveiled at APEC. China’s president Xi Jinping will also attend and is anticipated to meet bilaterally with President Joe Biden. Several of the Southeast Asian leaders will have other engagements in the United States aside from APEC. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia will visit Washington beforehand for a meeting in the Oval Office. And President Marcos is scheduled to visit Indo-Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii on his way back from San Francisco.

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