Use Summit to Advance East Asia Strategy

SOEYA Yoshihide
Faculty Fellow, RIETI

China's remarkable advancement has triggered new moves for economic integration in East Asia. But China has difficult domestic problems to contend with and it remains to be seen whether the trend to create a new regional order will advance steadily.

Japan's East Asian strategy should contribute to the building of China-centered regional stability. At the same time, when the trend suffers a setback, Japan should be able to take China's place to support the regional order. In doing so, Japan must not view China as a rival, but make the most of its own strengths to contribute to regional stability.

Actually, no one recognizes the importance of Japan's role better than Southeast Asian countries, which appear to have braced themselves to work closely with China. We often hear members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) say they want Japan to seriously tackle East Asian policy, even if it does so to counter China. This is a sign of ASEAN countries' inclination to maintain a balance, and one that shows their trust in Japan through three decades of close dealings with it since the 1970s.

From ASEAN's point of view, Japan's strengths are completely different from China's. Despite China's remarkable advancement, Japan's trade with ASEAN is three times that of China's. Furthermore, Japan's annual direct investment toward ASEAN countries is more than 10-fold China's in recent years, and cumulative investment is more than 50-fold.

Up to now, Japan has played a crucial role, both tangibly and intangibly, in building civilian networks supported by common cultures and values shared by civil societies of the region, transcending national borders. Initially, Japan's contribution tended to incline in the area of economy. But recently, Japanese fashion, anime and television dramas are making inroads into the region and changing the traditional image East Asian citizens have of Japan.

What is more, as East Asian citizens accept movies and dramas made in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and elsewhere in the region, they come to share everyday ideas and lifestyles, which bring them even closer together. The presence of Japan, which set the trend, has diminished somewhat and it is now one of many members that make up the East Asian civil society.

As a result, the antipathy to postwar Japan that is common to older Asians is fading rapidly among the younger generation. In particular, the people of ASEAN, including government officials, have begun to openly say they feel more at ease dealing with Japan than they do with China. I think Japan's East Asian strategy, looking to the future, has matured to a point that it should aim at the creation of a community based on the equal partnership that Japan has developed in the past.

Preparations are under way in Tokyo to host a Japan-ASEAN special summit this week. But few people at home and abroad recognize the importance of this "historic event." In particular, that few Japanese understand the significance of the special summit, which is considered the fruit of Japanese foreign policy, is symbolic of the absence of Japan's East Asia strategy.

The Japan-ASEAN special summit is "historic" because it is the first official occasion that brings together ASEAN leaders and the leader of a non-ASEAN country in a venue outside ASEAN.

Until now, bilateral summits between ASEAN and non-ASEAN country have usually been held on the sidelines of ASEAN summits or ASEAN-plus-three (Japan, South Korea and China) summits.

To begin with, ASEAN has been circumspect about developing special ties with particular countries outside Southeast Asia. When then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto proposed a Japan-ASEAN summit in early 1997, ASEAN rejected the idea. At the end of the same year, however, after undergoing the Asian currency crisis, it incorporated Hashimoto's proposal within the newly established ASEAN-plus-three frameworks for East Asian cooperation.

For this reason, it is a landmark development for ASEAN to agree to let Japan, a non-ASEAN country, host a bilateral summit for the first time. Japan's diplomatic authorities are calling for the special summit to adopt a "Japan-ASEAN charter" that states the special relationship between the two.

Ironically for Japan, even though ASEAN leaders agreed to meet exclusively with their Japanese counterparts, ASEAN is sticking by the policy of maintaining well-balanced relationships with non-ASEAN countries. Looking from a different angle, this is how China's looming presence is affecting ASEAN's behavior. While ASEAN is passive about adopting a "charter" that stresses its special relationship with Japan, it is asking Japan whether it seriously plans to cooperate with the initiative to conclude free trade agreements with ASEAN members.

As far as individual problems, such as those concerning agricultural policy, are concerned, Japan, as an equal partner, is urged to implement new domestic measures as part of its East Asian strategy to build a community. Generally speaking, from ASEAN's point of view, its economic relations with Japan are more supplementary than competitive. This is in striking contrast to ASEAN's relations with China.

Furthermore, everyday ideas and values shared by civil society transcending national borders are an important infrastructure of an East Asian community.

Japan should take advantage of the special summit to incorporate the assets it has developed over the years more positively into its East Asian strategy. I hope the event will serve as a historic first step for Japan to move toward this goal.

>> Original text in Japanese

* The article was reprinted from International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun on December 8, 2003. No reproduction or republication without written permission of the author and The Asahi Shimbun.

December 8, 2003 International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun

December 12, 2003

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