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Reflections on ASEAN-Japan Partnership

ISSUE 2020
No 16
Release 28 September 2020
By H.E. Dr. SOK Siphana*


At the outset, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Kyoto Sangyo University for organising this timely webinar on ASEAN-Japan relationship from a multi-dimensional perspective. I feel humble to have the opportunity to share my perspective on the topic of “Advancing ASEAN-Japan partnership for Society 5.0” and I am truly convinced that such academic exchanges will go a long way in contributing to the promotion of a shared vision through knowledge, mutual understanding and trust, which will ultimately lead to better people-to-people ties.

Our workshop today is taking place in the background of an extraordinary political development in Japan. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Japan on having a smooth political power transition. I am confident that, under the leadership of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Japan will continue to have a robust foreign policy towards ASEAN and each Southeast Asian country. As you may remember, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his first overseas trip to Southeast Asia after getting elected in 2013. He was the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit all Southeast Asian countries within one single year.

We can all appreciate the key legacies he has left behind, such as ‘Abenomics’, ‘Womenomics’, ‘Society 5.0’, and the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, which in my view remain critical policy instruments, not only for the development of the Japanese economy and society but also for making a positive contribution to advancing Japanese interests overseas. Under Abe’s administration, Japan took a proactive and robust foreign policy towards Southeast Asia as attested by several important milestones achieved under the ASEAN-Japan partnership. Cambodia-Japan strategic partnership has been significantly enhanced as well, I would say even remarkably, due to the personal friendship between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and my Prime Minister, Samdech Techo Hun Sen.

Please allow me now to shift to the main topic, which is the ASEAN-Japan partnership. Here I will talk briefly about its background. Then, I will focus on how we can strengthen the partnership to realise a Society 5.0. I believe the focus on Society 5.0 is quite timely, as we have been embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With these two forces combined together, the prospect of achieving a lasting sustainable, inclusive and resilient society- technology interface is definitely possible through multi-stakeholders’ partnership and international partnership.

ASEAN-Japan Partnership: Background and How to Strengthen it to Achieve Society 5.0

The dialogue partnership between Japan and ASEAN was established in 1973 and formalised in 1977, and it has since evolved dynamically for over the last five decades. In this connection, I would like to draw your attention to the Fukuda Doctrine, which was announced at the first ASEAN-Japan Summit Meeting in 1977, outlining three principles, namely (1) Japan rejects the role of a military power; (2) Japan will do its best to consolidate the relationship of mutual confidence and trust based on “heart-to-heart”; and (3) Japan will be an equal partner of ASEAN. I believe these principles remain relevant and applicable today.

At the 40th Commemoration Anniversary of the ASEAN-Japan Dialogue Partnership in 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued five principles to engage ASEAN. First, protecting and promoting together with ASEAN Member States the universal values, such as freedom, democracy and basic human rights. Second, ensuring in cooperation with ASEAN Member States that the free and open seas are governed by laws and rules and not by force. Third, further promoting trade and investment, including flows of goods, money, people and services, through various economic partnership networks for Japan’s economic revitalisation and the prosperity of both Japan and ASEAN Member States. Fourth, protecting and nurturing Asia’s diverse cultural heritage and traditions. And Fifth, promoting exchanges among the younger generations to further foster mutual understanding. Again, these principles remain relevant and practical today.

Please note that Japan is the first Dialogue Partner to appoint a Jakarta-based ambassador to ASEAN in 2011. This demonstrates Japan’s strong political will and commitment to constantly advancing the bilateral partnership. Japan has also become one of the key economic partners of ASEAN. In 2018, Japan was the fourth largest trading partner of ASEAN, with a bilateral trade volume reaching USD231.7 billion. Japan was the third largest external source of foreign direct investment, with the amount of USD21 billion, accounting for 13.7 per cent of total FDI flows to ASEAN.

As far as ODA is concerned, Japan is one of the key providers of development assistance to ASEAN. At the last foreign ministers meeting in September 2020, for instance, ASEAN and Japan expressed their commitments to rebuilding a better and stronger relationship after the Covid-19 pandemic. Japan pledged USD50 million for the establishment of the ‘ASEAN Centre for Emerging Diseases and Public Health Emergencies’. The country also supported equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and worked towards the safe reopening flow of people between Japan and ASEAN.

When it comes to sub-regional cooperation, Japan has been actively involved in the Mekong subregion under the framework of Mekong-Japan Cooperation. Credit is due to Japan for being the first country to have institutionally engaged the Mekong sub-region in 2007 with the launch of the ‘Japan-Mekong Region Partnership Program’. A year later, the first Mekong-Japan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was convened in Tokyo, whereby Japan and the Mekong countries came up with a shared vision to build a ‘Region of Hope and Development’ and stressed the importance of inter- and intra-regional cooperation. Subsequently, the first Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting was officially organised in 2009.

For the last decade I have been personally involved in the advisory work with the Cambodian foreign ministry, and I could attest that the Japan-ASEAN partnership and its subset, the Japan- Mekong cooperation, have been nurtured and advanced by stable and progressive networks of bilateral relationships between Japan and each ASEAN member country. This simultaneous dual track development I am referring to is the development of relationship at both bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. It plays a pivotal role in shoring up the overall trust-based, interest-driven, and future-oriented ASEAN-Japan partnership.

Take for example, the Cambodia-Japan bilateral relationship, which has been remarkably enhanced over the decades. Japan has significantly contributed to the entire process of national reconstruction in the post-conflict Cambodia, from national reconciliation to peacekeeping, peacebuilding and national development. On a historical note, please bear in mind that Japan sent her first peacekeeping force to Cambodia in 1992 under the framework of the United Nations. And vice versa, Cambodia was the first Southeast Asian country to have registered support for the Japan-proposed Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Both countries will continue to support each other at various multilateral platforms.

On the economic front, Japan is one of the key economic partners of Cambodia. The bilateral trade volume hit more than USD2 billion in 2019, and the accumulated investment capital from Japan for the 1994–2018 period was about USD2.5 billion. In terms of labour cooperation and skill development, as of March 2020, Cambodia had sent 10,683 technical trainees and 193 skilled workers to Japan. With the aging of Japanese society and the shortage of young labour force, this is a new area of cooperation that I foresee Cambodia can contribute back to the development of Japan.

Now let me close the Cambodian parenthesis and return to regional cooperation, especially on the ways forward. There is no doubt that ASEAN and Japan can join hands to explore creatively joint programmes and activities to advance and realise Society 5.0. For those who are not familiar with the concept of Society 5.0., let me recall that the notion was initiated by Japan in 2016 with the aim to promote a human-centric society and to realise a “super smart society”, meaning in plain language a society where people could enjoy life to the fullest. This grand and noble humanistic vision, by default, necessitates a whole-of-society approach to make it a reality.

This is where the role of the Japanese private sector comes in to play as a key transformative force. For instance, the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) revised its Charter of Corporate Behaviour in 2017 with a focus on “Delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals through the Realisation of Society 5.0”. ‘Economic growth’, and I quote, “must provide solutions to global and local challenges such as health and medical care, agriculture and food, the environment and climate change, energy, safety and disaster prevention, human and gender equality, and human vitality.” The revised Charter further states:

Member corporations should fully recognise that their development is founded on the realisation of a sustainable society, and they should exercise their social responsibilities by creating new added value and generating employment that will be beneficial to society at large and by conducting their business in a manner that takes the environment, society, and governance (ESG) intoconsideration.

In my humble view, this is an area that ASEAN member countries can learn, adopt and innovate this Japanese concept based on the domestic contexts and conditions of each country. For sure, the notion of corporate governance and corporate responsibilities are not new to the ASEAN private sector, but there are rooms to improve based on the lessons learned on business practices from ethically responsible Japanese companies, which have integrated the principle of ESG into their corporate governance culture and DNA.

The development of Society 5.0 is timely relevant to ASEAN, given its own ambition and aspiration to build a people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN, in which no one is left behind. Here we have to be mindful that ASEAN has a vision but has not had an effective mechanism to realise it yet. To that effect, ASEAN should consider developing its own sui generis ASEAN Society 5.0. For that matter, Japan can, of course, provide financial and technical support to build the capacity of ASEAN to implement it.

More concretely, what I have in mind is my five policy proposals or suggestions for the future development of ASEAN Society 5.0. First, investing more in human capital. With a population of more than 650 million and out of that more than 210 million aged between 15 and 34 years old, ASEAN has great potentials to transform this demographic dividend into a crucial mass of human capital. For those who know ASEAN well, the ASEAN youth are eager to learn, adopt, adapt and innovate new technologies. Skill development and advancement are thus really crucial, and I am sure that Japan can help further develop human capital in ASEAN, especially the CLM countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar).

Second, accelerating digital transformation. The public and private investments in digital infrastructure are critical to set the foundation for digitalisation. In June of this year, ‘Go Digital ASEAN’ was initiated to develop digital skills to address the economic impact of Covid-19. The project was jointly developed and managed by the ASEAN Coordinating Committee on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (ACCMSME) and The Asia Foundation. We need to develop more similar projects to support local businesses to adopt, adapt and innovate digital tools. This is another area where Japanese SMEs can share their best practices in digital transformation.

Third, investing in social innovation. Here I am referring to the development of novel solutions to addressing and meeting social needs and goals. We need to explore more programmes and projects to empower social innovators and entrepreneurs across the region by ways of providing institutional support, financial support, capacity building, knowledge sharing, and networking. For instance, some local communities have developed innovative solutions to certain social issues and challenges they are facing, but these are not systematically documented and widely shared. We can go to some steps further and add value to their process by creating a sustainable platform for knowledge sharing that can support purpose-driven entrepreneurs I have mentioned earlier to address social and environment problems.

Fourth, investing in nature economy. What do I mean by that? Here I am looking at creating natural capital by connecting the environment and natural resources with community goals to create a vibrant economy and high quality of life for all. We all know how destructive the environmental crisis, as a global phenomenon, can do to our societies. The only solution to it is to reverse the current development model to become a nature-positive development model. Japan has walked along this path for decades since the 1970s when Japan started to seriously address its industrial pollution problems and environmental degradation that took place between 1959 and 1973. Therefore, Japan can contribute to ASEAN’s efforts in building high- quality and nature-positive infrastructure, clean and renewable energy, and nature-positive food production and consumption, and sustainable use of land and ocean resources.

Fifth, promoting stakeholder capitalism, which is a sort of market system where the aim of corporations is to serve the interests of all stakeholders, ranging from customers, suppliers, employees, local communities, and shareholders. Early this year, the World Economic Forum issued its revised Davos Manifesto 2020 suggesting key values and purposes for companies, including the respect for human dignity and human rights; the alignment of value with customers and suppliers; the contribution to the well-being of local communities; the realisation of environmental, social and good governance objectives; and the improvement of the state of the world. I think, moving forward, these principles and values of stakeholder capitalism need to be integrated into ASEAN values and principles. Japanese corporations have enormous experiences in promoting stakeholder capitalism, in which some lessons can be drawn from and shared with private corporations from ASEAN.


To conclude, I have three observations to make. First, Japan-ASEAN partnership will continue to evolve positively notwithstanding the rising great power rivalry. Japan and ASEAN are smart enough to avoid this geopolitical trap. Second, Japan’s foreign policy towards ASEAN and Southeast Asian region will continue to be robust and inspired by the principles laid out specifically by former Prime Ministers Fukuda Takeo and Shinzo Abe. Third, for the new era of cooperation, Japan and ASEAN can work together to build ASEAN Society 5.0 as a means to realise an inclusive, just, sustainable, and resilient ASEAN.

This article was adapted from his presentation at the ASEAN-Japan Virtual Workshop organised by Kyoto Sangyo University on 26th September 2020.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.