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Japan the weakest link in East Asian Regionalism?

Updated On: May 30, 2006

In an increasingly familiar refrain, 2 ASEAN leaders the Prime Minster (PM) of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Abdullah and the Minister Mentor of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, have highlighted the need for stronger relations between Japan and its two neighbours, China and South Korea, for the sake of regional cohesion. They said these in a conference held in Tokyo last week.

Datuk Seri Abdullah said that moves towards an East Asian community were faced with “challenges of cohesion, conviction and implementation.” He warned that, “I have to be candid and say that the situation has worsened. Solidarity has been seriously dented. Economics is pushing us in one direction but politics is pushing us in another. In addition to difficulties between Tokyo and Beijing, relations between Seoul and Tokyo have also become further strained.”

MM Lee has also referred to the unresolved rows over Japan’s wartime history and disputed territories with China and South Korea as “unnecessary friction and unnecessary irritation which will slow down the process of integration [of Asia].”

The South Korean Minister of Commerce, Industry and Energy, Chung Sye-Kyun has also called for Japanese leaders to stop paying homage at the Yasakuni Shrine and thereby, “showing that it is willing to take responsibility for its past conduct… and help lay the foundation for the building of the East Asian community.”

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone also spoke and pointed to the people-to-people contact as one of the common denominators of a future East Asian community. He cited the examples of “Winter Sonata” (a South Korean drama series that received huge following across the region) and Japanese animation series as having the potential to turn into “a culture of sorts.”

Nevertheless, Nakasone said that other than such people-to-people contact, it was difficult to see how the East Asian community would take shape given the lack of clarity of the content and membership of the community. Despite the initial understanding that the East Asian community would only include the 10 ASEAN members,JapanChina and South Korea, the inaugural East Asia Summit held last year included AustraliaNew Zealand and India.

There also seemed to be a divergent in the views of the rapid development of China. Nakasone warned that there were “concerns over the military build-up inChina.” Ironically, these concerns did not seem to have been shared by Datuk Abdullah and MM Lee. Abdullah urged for the “so-called ‘China threat’ ….. to be examined more dispassionately.” MM Lee doubted that the Chinese military capability would match the US for a “very long time” and peace could be maintained in the Asia-Pacific as long as “there is strong US-Japan alliance.”

Despite these misgivings, there seems to be some areas of progress in regional cooperation. In an earlier conference, Abdullah commented the efforts of the region’s finance ministers for their work on doubling the size of the currency swap under the Chiang Mai Initiative from US$39.5 billion a year ago to the present US$71.5 billion. The Chiang Mai Initiative was borne out of the experience of the Asian Financial Crisis and is aimed at boosting the short term liquidity of the member countries.

Two other mechanisms were raised as possible means to form the East Asian community. Lee and Chung have pointed to the need to form FTAs within the region. Another area for regional cooperation is in the energy sector. Chung urged ChinaJapan and South Korea to consider the joint development of overseas oilfields, share bunkers to store oil and build pipelines that can help to save costs. MM Lee chided the three countries for “competing with one another” in energy negotiations with Russia, resulting in the driving up of prices against themselves. He urged them to “bury your differences when bargaining with Russia.”

Sources:

JapanChinaSouth Korea Urged to Resolve Tensions; MM Lee, Abdullah Make Call for Asian Unity and Economic Progress (The Business Times Singapore26 May 2006)

Difficult for Asia to Go the EU Way: MM; It Cannot Be Community As Countries are not Comfortable with One Another, He Says (The Straits Times, 26 May 2006)

East Asia bloc under threat (The Star, 26 May 2006

Asian powerhouses urged to close ranks (New Straits Times, 26 May 2006

Currency Swap Arrangements in East Asia has Doubled (Malaysia Economic News, 25 May 2006)

FTAs Needed for East Asian Integration: Commerce Minister (Yonhap, 25 May 2006)