Illustrations: Peter C. Espina/GT
In the 1980s, the Malaysian government adopted the "Look East" policy. Back then, the main thrust of the policy was on learning the successful economic development lessons of Japan and South Korea. Thousands of Malaysian students went to study in Japan, bringing back the technological and management know-how that helped spur Malaysia's own economic progress.
Therefore, it came as a surprise when in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he had "realized that Japan is expected to exert leadership not just on the economic front, but also in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific."
Many could not help but wonder about the motivations behind Abe's "expansive" statements, which implied that Japan would like to extend its regional influence beyond that of a peaceful partner for economic development.
Perhaps Abe detected a void in the Asia-Pacific security setup that he thought Japan could rush in to fill.
With the avowed US policy to rebalance its strategic resources in the Asia-Pacific region, and the gradual emergence of China as a rising power, a number of countries in the region inevitably feel that they are subtly but surely being compelled to choose sides between the US and China. Some countries may even feel that in a sense they are squeezed between the US and China.
But many of the countries in the region, especially in Southeast Asia, are traditionally trade and investment-oriented. They do not relish being forced to choose sides, but would rather do business with all.
Hence, Abe should not misread the feelings and intentions of Southeast Asian nations and try to present Japan as a third choice for maintaining regional security order in the Asia-Pacific region.
Most Asia-Pacific countries already have too much on their plates in terms of security concerns, having to juggle the jostling security presence of two major powers in the world. A third major security player in the region will only add to the already complicated regional security mêlée.
It is unclear if Abe consulted with the US before his latest round of expansive statements. Despite their intimate security partnership, the US does not necessarily welcome a highly rearmed and militarily proactive Japan. A stronger Japan may or may not then be as cooperative with a strategically overstretched US presence in this region.
Another line of reasoning for Abe's restless regional security proposal could be that as a politician he needs to appease the more right-wing elements in Japanese politics, and especially in his own party. While that might be a political necessity, Abe should realize that having just emerged from a huge electoral victory, he should be a true statesman and rise above the incessant bickering to wisely utilize his huge popularity to do the right things for the country.
With the Japanese economy in the doldrums for many years, Abe should redouble and deepen his "Abenomics" to seriously tackle an ailing system which is over-regulated and over-protected.
Japan could learn a trick or two from South Korea, which has faced even greater existential security challenges, yet chose to devote its efforts to innovation and economic development, such that it has now become a serious economic competitor to Japan.
Or it can look to Russia, which was once one of the world's only two superpowers, but is now content to focus on developing its resources and economy, while continues to play an active but peaceful role in international diplomacy, such as brokering the latest deal in defusing the imminent US attacks on Syria which won worldwide acclaim.
A peaceful and economically prosperous Japan would certainly be welcomed by its neighbors, who look forward to it playing a constructive role in regional economic development again.
The author is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. firstname.lastname@example.org