Japan and the United States held their first strategic dialogue Wednesday on Southeast Asian affairs as part of broader policy coordination amid increasing Chinese influence in the region.
Senior officials from both the countries met virtually after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and US President Joe Biden agreed during talks last week in Tokyo to boost ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Kyodo News reported.
The new dialogue focused on how the two allies can bring ASEAN member states closer to a US-led group of free and democratic countries, as China has apparently been striving to alter the status quo in the East and South China seas and other areas in the Indo-Pacific with force and coercion.
“Southeast Asia is key to realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Hikariko Ono told a press conference after the virtual talks, as per Kyodo News.
ASEAN made no bones of the fact that it realises it is stuck between China and the US and wants concessions on its own terms as part of its strategy to be wooed by the big powers. Joanne Lin, a lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore told CNBC, “ASEAN would probably like to see more US support towards its ASEAN-led mechanisms, as opposed to US-led minilateral groupings such as the Quad and Aukus.”
However, China has been wooing ASEAN as well, “and not just with the trade and investment that are likely its most powerful levers of influence in Southeast Asia” because in the past one decade, “Beijing has steadily expanded its media influence in these countries in four key ways, as a means of shaping their views”, according to Asian media reports.
Compared to the high-profile wooing campaigns of President Biden, China’s attempts have been subtle and consistent over a period of time. The communist government has banked upon its extensive propaganda machinery to constantly target ASEAN nations with its specialised content. For instance, Xinhua, China’s official state media agency, has print bureaus in every Southeast Asian country. TV news channels CCTV-4 and the English-language CGTN also have bureaus in this region. China Radio International airs multilingual content in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar.