What does Abe’s trip mean for Japan and Asia?

Much is being made of Prime Minister Abe’s trip to India, where he is scheduled to address India’s parliament today.

The trip will likely feature lots of talk of the values shared by Japan and India, naturally to contrast both Asian powers with China.

I remain less than convinced that Japan and India will be able to build a “special relationship” that can function as a kind of pincer movement against China, not least because it is in the interests of neither country to court a Chinese reaction to a more formal partnership.

Economic ties? Sure. More military exercises? Fine. But joint Indo-Japanese leadership in Asian multilateral fora? What are their shared interests? A China that is a “responsible stakeholder” in the region? How exactly will an Indo-Japan partnership serve to make China more responsible?

There’s nothing wrong with closer Indo-Japanese relations — and closer ASEAN-Japan relations— but it is important not to get carried away. It is not entirely clear what Japan’s vision for the region is, and accordingly it is difficult to imagine Japan’s playing anything but a supporting role as the region’s map is redrawn over the coming decades. Japanese money will ensure that Tokyo always has a seat at the head table, but I don’t think rhetoric about “democratization” and “good governance” constitute Japanese leadership in the region. That was the message Prime Minister Abe delivered to ASEAN in Jakarta, where he talked about the need for ASEAN to foster good governance among its member states and ensure that governments respect the will of the people (it would be nice if he tried that at home).

ASEAN will no doubt be thrilled to play Japan and China off one another, pocketing the investments of both, but I would hardly call that a leadership role for Japan. Indeed, the competition between Japan (and the US) and China over ASEAN suggests that regional leadership may in fact come more from ASEAN than from the great powers that are struggling to enhance their influence over the region, particularly if the US military presence in the region remains in place, providing an implicit security guarantee that keeps the peace, thereby creating the space in which ASEAN can push for a region-wide political and economic community.

So regardless of the rhetoric that the prime minister delivers in Delhi today, it is important to remember that Indo-Japanese cooperation will be but one facet of each country’s approach to an increasingly complex Asia. The future of Asia will not rest in the hands of a concert of democratic powers.

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