Sino-Japanese relations and its impact on East Asian Regionalism

Updated On: Jan 19, 2007

The superpowers have made up. Japan and China are talking to each other and even having a united stand on the North Korean nuclear issue. So how does this impact on East Asian Regionalism?

Japan and India are especially keen to see it developing into a 16-nation “community” and has proposed a free trade agreement (FTA) to turn the region into a single trading bloc. This would create a free trade zone of three billion people and economies worth US$9 trillion (S$14 trillion). This proposal by two of Asia's regional powers (one rising and one incumbent economic power) has the potential, some analysts say, of dampening the power of the third pole - China. Some also see this communitarian concept as buying time for Japan's FTA negotiations with ASEAN which remains stuck somewhere in the talks on the goods chapter with negotiations over services and investments in cold storage.

To some, it is thus not surprising that China has a different idea. It is more in favour of building an East Asian community around the ASEAN+3 (South KoreaChinaand Japan) process and has proposed free trade talks around this. But, Chinese diplomacy is flexible, pragmatic and amenable and this alone gives East Asian regionalism a chance. Moreover, China has all the time it needs. It is basking in confidence over its newfound power projection, especially in the economics field.China took an early lead when it signed the services chapter of its free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN in the East Asian summit. China and the grouping are on the way to construct a free trade zone of some 1.8 billion people by 2010. Its progress is so fast that only the investment chapter of their FTA is left to be negotiated.  In line with its “peaceful rise” doctrine (heping jueqi), China has said it would respect the decision of ASEAN to pick whatever grouping, ASEAN + 3 or ASEAN + 6, they are in favour of.

But this is where the contention starts. ASEAN is internally divided over the two proposals with Malaysia in favour of the Chinese-proposed ASEAN+3 as core and the Philippines pushing for the other Japan-led community concept of ASEAN + 6. The deciding factor may eventually be Indonesia which is leaning towards the Filipino position although it wants the community formation to be gradual. Indonesia has always seen China and its potential for dominance as a challenge in the region (given its own big brother ambitions) although it is keeping an open mind about the vital role that the PRC can play in balancing Washington's (by default Japanese) interests.

The net result of this flurry of activities (without the presence of Washington still mired in the debate over the Iraqi troop surge) is that East Asian Regionalism is given a chance, given that the traditional impeding factor had always been a suspicious US fearful of being left out. And to give this chance for success a boost, China andJapan's reconciliation adds to the optimism. Sure, there is the traditional rivalry between the two countries which ASEAN likes to play on. But this time, the rivalry seems to be more cordial, over economics mostly.

China proposed setting up economic and trade zones in Asean countries so as to boost investments by Chinese companies in the region while Japan countered with the initiation of a private sector study on a 16 country free trade area to link all the members of the East Asia Summit (EAS). The crucial test will be how PM Abe is going to pull off Sino-Japanese rapprochement when the day of reckoning comes with the Yasukuni Shrine visit, which he almost certainly must go to keep his conservative power base. Speculations are rife as to how he is going to do it, from the unlikely option of not going at all to the more popularly speculated option of visiting the shrine in secrecy on non-sensitive dates. So much rests on this shrine visit, not the least of it, the future of East Asian regionalism.

In a commentary in the Business Times, Anthony Rowley did not mince his words when he opined that to believe that ASEAN can be the force and driver of the East Asian regionalism is “delusional”.  If the big powers, Japan, China and South Korea are not reconciled and united, and without institutions, treaties and conventions to bind them together, there will be no East Asian community.


Question mark over future shape of East Asia Summit (Straits Times, 16 January 2007)

Japan, China and S. Korea united by N. Korea threat (Straits Times, 16 January 2007)

China and Japan come a-courting (Straits Times, 15 January 2007)

Single regional market by 2015 (Straits Times, 14 January 2007)

SE Asia lays path for future, old problems nag (Straits Times, 13 January 2007)

Integration via Asean backdoor is but delusional (Business Times, 18 January 2007)