Out of hundreds of international symposiums and round tables being held annually in Japan, few are exclusively focused on ASEAN and Japan. There was one this week in Tokyo organized by the University of Niigata Prefecture, whose goals and curriculum, despite its provincial-sounding name, are quite international.
"The university was established to adequately respond to the rapid advancement of globalization and, at the same time, to contribute to the revitalization of our region," says Dr. Takashi Inoguchi, the University's president. The University of Niigata Prefecture is one of several 'international' universities funded or supported by local governments in Japan.
The symposium was inaugurated with an opening speech by a former Prime Minister of Japan as well as a message from the First Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. After the lunch break, participants discussed issues related to culture, economics and international relations pertaining to Japan and ASEAN member states.
This column will not reproduce the content of all the discussions at the symposium. Instead, I will only repeat what I said in my lunch speech and during the discussions thereafter. My focus is always geopolitical and strategic. The following are my observations on what is taking place in the world now and in South East Asia, in particular.
- The world is entering a new era, which can be called the post-'post-cold war' period, where unhealthy, local and potentially violent nationalisms are back. The Russian invasion of Crimea was a starting signal, as are the debates on Scotland's independence, the UK's withdrawal from the EU, the rise of far-right movements in Europe and the latest terror attacks in France.
- What brings the ASEAN nations and Japan together is not the land but the sea. A great majority of raw materials, energy, manufactured goods and other commodities imported to and exported from Japan go through waters near the ASEAN region. Meanwhile, 75% of maritime piracy incidents in 2014 took place in the same maritime areas.
- What the Russians are doing on the ground in Europe and the Chinese are doing on the water in East Asia is essentially the same. These are attempts to change the status quo by force. For Japan, the Chinese concepts of the first and second 'island chains' are particularly alarming because Japan's SLOCs (sea lines of communication) to the Middle East can be undermined.
- This is not to suggest that we should contain or challenge China. China is too big for any nation to do so. On the contrary, it is nationalistic China that is challenging the maritime commons principle in our waters and, like Japan in the 1930-40s, challenging the US hegemony in the Western Pacific. Now Japan and the US are the two major status quo powers in this part of the world.
- My questions for the participants from each ASEAN member state are: What is the geopolitical vulnerability of your country? Who has been a traditional threat to you? The answers may vary because some ASEAN nations are islands, few are continental and the majority are peninsular, meaning half maritime and half continental, like the Korean peninsula.
- The final and fundamental questions are: As far as national security is concerned, does your country wish to maintain the status quo or to change it. If the answer is the latter, to what extent will your country accommodate a change in the status quo? How far will you allow the status quo changers to do so?
As I had predicted, the entire room was dead silent. No one on the floor dared to speak out in public except for scholars of Indian subcontinental ancestry. I am convinced that this reflects the political reality in the ASEAN region. I had participated in a similar symposium a few years before in Tokyo where the floor's atmosphere was exactly the same.
After the symposium was over, I was approached by several participants from ASEAN nations, all telling me that they had really wanted to respond. They told me that they are in favor of status quo but declined to comment because their fellow citizens were listening. I said this was quite understandable.
This episode tells us everything, doesn't it? ASEAN countries' intellectuals are reluctant to openly criticize Beijing, despite their awareness that China is a status quo changer and that the limits of its desired changes are unknown. There will be no true mutual understanding without Tokyo's comprehending the mentalities of ASEAN's member states.