Amb. Tommy Koh discusses steps toward an East Asia community: speech

Updated On: Mar 24, 2010

There are questions of whether the current regional groupings in the Asia-Pacific (APEC, ASEAN+, East Asia Summit) are adequate. There are also questions of what would constitute the ideal regional framework, and how to get there. In the past year, Australia and Japan have each floated visions of new regional frameworks: The Asia-Pacific Community and the East Asian Community.

In the below speech, transcribed in full, Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, discusses steps towards realization of an East Asian community. The speech was delivered March 17, 2010 at the Public Symposium on Building an East Asian Community, hosted by the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) in Tokyo.

Second Session:
“Prospects: steps toward the realization of an East Asian community”

1.    Mr Chairman, fellow panellists, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

2.    I would like to begin by thanking President Nogami and the JIIA for inviting me to participate in this important symposium.  I am grateful for this opportunity to make a small contribution to the discussion of Prime Minister Hatoyama’s initiative for an East Asian community, which he has described as the main pillar of his Asian diplomacy.

PM Hatoyama’s Inspiration

3.    In his policy address, delivered in Singapore, on 15 November 2009, PM Hatoyama explained that his initiative was inspired by the concept of “yu-ai”, a legacy from his grandfather, and the post-war experience of Europe.  The concept, “yu-ai”, means “fraternity”.  PM Hatoyama would like to bring about a historic reconciliation between Japan and the countries it occupied during the Second World War.  He would like Japan to have fraternal relations with all its neighbours in Asia.  He is inspired by the post-war experience of Europe, where, following two world wars, historic enemies have been reconciled and a union of 27 countries has been constructed based upon cooperation for mutual benefit.

I share PM Hatoyama’s vision.  I have often written about the need to bring about a historic reconciliation between Japan and China, between Japan and Korea and between Japan and other countries in Southeast Asia which suffered under Japanese occupation.  I would also like to see a historic reconciliation between China and India.  The quest for an East Asian community will be realised sooner if we can get rid of our historical baggages and begin to treat one another with fraternity, mutual trust and confidence.  

4.    I wish to make six points.

Point No. 1: Use Existing Institutions

5.    First, I note that PM Hatoyama does not intend to create a new institution, but to work with existing institutions.  ASEAN shares this position.  The region already has enough institutions, including, ASEAN+3, the East Asia Summit, APEC and ARF.  ASEAN+3 and the East Asia Summit are the two most relevant institutions for building the East Asian community.  At the ASEAN+3 Summit in Singapore in November 2007, Leaders recognised and supported the mutually reinforcing and complementary roles of ASEAN+3, the East Asia Summit, ARF, APEC and ASEM to promote East Asian community building.

Point No. 2: Support ASEAN’s Role

6.    My second point is that Japan should continue to work closely with ASEAN and to support the central role which ASEAN plays in the region’s institutional architecture.  All the major powers wish ASEAN to continue to play the role as convener and facilitator.  As my Foreign Minister, Mr George Yeo, explained to the Singapore Parliament recently, ASEAN is in the driver’s seat not because it is the best driver but because it is acceptable to all the passengers.

Point No. 3: Principles of Transparency, Inclusiveness and Equality

7.    My third point is that we should remain committed to three important principles which animate our regional institutions:  transparency, inclusiveness and equality.  Our regional institutions are open and transparent.  They are inclusive.  No legitimate stakeholder is excluded.  Our institutions are based upon the principle of sovereign equality of States.  We should resist any attempt to divide the powerful from the less powerful and to create a hierarchical structure or a concert of the major and middle powers which would presumably “rule” over the less powerful States of the region.

Point No. 4: Focus on Building Network of Functional Communities

8.    Fourth, I support PM Hatoyama’s proposal, contained in his policy address in Singapore, to focus on building a multi-layered network of functional communities.  Let me mention some examples.  We have the Chiang Mai Initiative, launched in 2000 by ASEAN+3, in the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis, to enhance macroeconomic coordination, to create a standby mechanism for currency swaps in the event of currency turbulence, and to reduce the impact of the Atlantic financial crisis of 2008-2009.  We should push ahead with the proposals to conclude an ASEAN+3 FTA, as well as a comprehensive economic partnership agreement for ASEAN+6.

9.    On the cultural front, EAS has endorsed the Nalanda University project.  Located in Bihar, India, Nalanda University had preceded the founding of Oxford and Cambridge.  It was a great centre of learning, not just in Buddhism, but also in mathematics and science.  Buddhism originated from India and has spread to China, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka and many of the countries of Southeast Asia.  The revival of Nalanda University will connect our past to our present and our future.  It is a symbol of Asia’s cultural renaissance.

10.    One other initiative is deserving of Japan’s support.  ASEAN has launched a new proposal called the ASEAN Connectivity Initiative.  The idea is simple.  In order to facilitate ASEAN’s economic integration, we need better connectivity among the ten ASEAN countries, by road, rail, sea, air, etc.  The ASEAN Connectivity Initiative also has an external dimension which aims to link ASEAN with all its dialogue partners in East Asia.  As the first step to build an East Asian community is better connectivity among the members of the community, Japan’s support for the ASEAN Connectivity Initiative would help bring about the East Asian community.

Point No. 5: New Areas of Cooperation

11.    Fifth, we should build new areas of cooperation.  In his Singapore address, PM Hatoyama mentioned several new ideas.  Let me recollect here three of his proposals which I support.

12.    He proposed that we work together to achieve a “green Asia” and to tackle climate change.  I support his view that all Asian countries should embrace sustainable development.  He had very generously offered to make available to other Asian countries Japan’s energy-saving technologies, smart grid power systems, water purification technologies and other environmentally-friendly technologies.  This is an area in which Japanese leadership would be most welcome and appreciated.

13.    Another proposal which I find very attractive is for the countries of Asia to work together for peace at sea.  The oceans and seas are our precious global commons.  They provide us with fresh water, food and hydrocarbons.  They are a carbon sink.  They provide the highways for shipping which carry most of our trade.  We should all support the rule of law at sea.  We should scrupulously abide by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  Japan has played a leading role in helping the three littoral States of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore to keep those straits safe and clean.  We have successfully reduced the threat of piracy in Southeast Asia.  I support PM Hatoyama’s idea that we can share our experiences with other parts of the world.

14.    I am happy to report that Japan, China, South Korea, India, Malaysia and Singapore are participating in the international community’s efforts to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia through the deployment of naval assets.  A Singapore naval officer is currently commanding the Combined Task Force 151.  I am also happy to report that an initiative of Japan, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), has entered into force and its Information Sharing Centre, based in Singapore, has been well received.  It facilitates the swift exchange of information between contracting parties and provides regular reports on the piracy situations in the Asian region.  It has become a model for other parts of the world.

15.    Finally, I like very much PM Hatoyama’s emphasis on the importance of people-to-people exchange.  He is right when he said that the vision of an East Asian community cannot be achieved without the support of the people.  I fully support his two specific ideas of increasing the exchange of youths between the countries of Asia and facilitating the exchange of university students by agreeing to accept the portability of academic credits earned by exchange students when abroad.  At the same time, enhancing Connectivity would help facilitate people-to-people exchanges.

Point No. 6: Inclusiveness

16.    The East Asian community should strive for inclusiveness.  Instead of seeking to define East Asia along racial or geographical lines, the East Asian community should reflect the existing linkages within the broader East Asian region, as well as across the Pacific.  History has taught us that we should never again allow a rift to occur between the western and eastern rims of the Pacific.


17.    I shall conclude.  I support PM Hatoyama’s vision of building an East Asian community based upon fraternity and cooperation.  My advice is to use the existing institutions and not to create a new one.  My exhortation to Japan is to continue to support the central role which ASEAN plays in the region’s architecture.  I fully endorse PM Hatoyama’s pragmatic approach of achieving his vision by a multi-layered network of functional communities and projects.

18.    Arigato.

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