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Strategic Possibilities and Limitations for Abe’s Japan in Southeast Asia

John Lee

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire for Japan to play a more proactive role in strategic affairs stems largely from not just his concern about the nature of China’s rise but the challenge to the post-war liberal regional order that the latter’s rise and behaviour presents. Any disruption to that order is perceived to be extremely detrimental to Japan’s core national interest.
  • The concern with reinforcing and strengthening the existing regional order is causing Japan to take far greater strategic interest in Southeast Asia – and also reflects lessons learnt from Abe’s first time in office (2006–07.)
  • The increased Japanese strategic interest in Southeast Asia is welcomed by all key states in Southeast Asia and the United States, meaning that the growing Japan-Southeast Asian strategic dynamic is mutually reinforcing.
  • Japanese desire to play a more proactive strategic role in Southeast Asia needs to be understood alongside its post-war constitutional limitations. While relaxation of military equipment and technology export policy may be highly significant, constitutional limitations are likely to preclude direct Japanese military involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts.
  • There is strong potential and promising possibilities for Japan to play a more proactive multilateral role in Southeast Asia through its standing and participation in regional institutions (especially ASEAN-led or backed institutions) that will further Tokyo’s objectives and advance the strategic and security goals of key Southeast Asian states.
  • Japan’s capacity to significantly enhance its strategic role in the region ultimately depends on the success of Abe’s domestic reforms.
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