IDSA COMMENT

East Asian Regionalism Vs Asian Regionalism

October 31, 2009

On 10 October, the heads of three North East Asian states – Japan, China and South Korea met at a trilateral Summit in Beijing. During the Summit, Yukio Hatoyama, the Prime Minister of Japan, floated the idea of an East Asian Community (EAC). The EAC plan has drawn attention since Hatoyama floated the idea in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in New York on 21 September, just five days after taking office and inaugurating the first ever DPJ-led government in post-War Japan. In hindsight, it appears that Hatoyama’s proposal to create an East Asian Community along the lines of the European Union will effectively spark a leadership race between Japan and China in shaping the future of one of the fastest developing regions in the world. Understandably, this emerged as an area of focus when leaders of the three countries, 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus Australia, India and New Zealand held a regional summit in Thailand a few days later.

As the Trilateral Summit revealed, progress on the EAC idea will be difficult because of possible leadership rivalry between Japan and China. Indeed, the movement towards realizing such a community is primarily a game played between two regional powers, Japan and China, not China and the United States. Hatoyama’s idea of an EAC represents Japan’s middle power diplomatic initiative and it could also be seen as a multilateral cooperative initiative. Therefore if China decides to impose a China-led regional order, Japan is unlikely to accept and the concept may meet an untimely demise.

During the election campaign Hatoyama, his party’s manifesto highlighted a foreign policy that envisaged an independent stance while putting less stress on Japan’s alliance relationship with the US and injecting an Asian orientation to Japan’s foreign policy. As it soon transpired from the Trilateral Summit, Hatoyama’s Asia-centric foreign policy was becoming China-centric. It is unclear if this is a departure from Tokyo’s stance during the LDP era when Japan had a larger focus in its Asian regionalism, which embraced the 10-member ASEAN countries, India, Australia and New Zealand.

There is no doubt that a possible Sino-Japanese rivalry will emerge if the EAC idea is pushed further. It may be recalled that in the past China favoured the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and Korea), whereas Japan preferred the ASEAN+6 grouping, effectively the members of the proposed EAC, India, Australia and New Zealand. If Hatoyama’s idea is indeed different, then one would notice a shift in Japan’s foreign policy vis-a-vis its immediate neighbourhood. The EAS would suffer a setback as a result of the EAC. The EAC and the EAS cannot co-exist. Regionalism in multiple dimensions would create more confusion than address to the plethora of problems that continue to plague the Asian region. This is because Hatoyama has not articulated his ideas to member states about the implications of a prospective EAC. It is not clear whether India, Australia and New Zealand figure in Hatoyama’s scheme of things.

Ten years ago, the first ever Trilateral meeting took place, on the sidelines of the ASEAN+3. Since then, the summit has come a long way and expanded to 6+3+3. The very talk of an EAC now is the product of deepening interdependence between Northeast Asian powers and periodic rocky political relations have not derailed the strong economic bonds that have developed between the three. Yet, the Trilateral Summit can hardly be seen as the locomotive of East Asian regionalism. Since the centrality of the ASEAN in any regional grouping is acknowledged by the three Northeast Asian countries; a possible EAC might not survive.

Confusion abounds over the membership issue. At a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 6 October 2009, Hatoyama is reported to have agreed that the membership of the EAC should not be ‘exclusive’, implying that he would consider the US as a prospective member. Singapore has always advocated “open regionalism”, whereby the US as an important economic player should be appropriately acknowledged. A day later, while speaking to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Foreign Minister Okada said that the EAC should involve India, Australia and New Zealand but not the US. Such conflicting statements by Japanese leaders further confuse observers as to what exactly is Japan’s foreign policy stance.

Seen differently, the Japanese idea of community building is a cry for deepening economic engagement with Asia. Hatoyama may be pursuing the EAC idea with a view to Japan assuming a regional diplomatic leadership role independently of the US. In that respect, Hatoyama’s foreign policy approach is perfectly in line with what was articulated in the DPJ’s manifesto that seeks a balanced foreign policy orientation towards Asia and the US. The question is: Can Hatoyama overlook other parts of Asia which are already webbed into the Japanese economic radar as intimately as its northeastern neighbour?

The issues on the table for Japan and China to cooperate are plenty: finance, energy, environment, anti-influenza measures, public health and energy. Besides, political issues are equally important. If Japan has the idea of developing a process similar to the one the 27-nation European Union has undergone, that is destined to remain will-o-the-wisp. Chinese experts argue that it was China, not Japan, which first advocated and supported the idea of an EAC. They argue that Japan was not interested in the first place and it was only after the global financial crisis, Japan realized that the impetus of its economy lies with China and other newly emerging countries in the region. They see Japan striving to establish a “Japan-led order in Asia” to rival China.

Indeed, there is conceptual gap between Japan and China in terms of establishing a membership club in East Asia. As noted, China does not want India, Australia and New Zealand in the grouping, whereas Japan not only wants a 16-nation community that also includes the US in the group arguing that Japan can serve as a “connector” between the US and the envisaged 16-member community. Japan has its own strategic reasons for including India. From the Japanese perspective, India in the group can be a counterbalance to China, which is expected to overtake Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in the near future. China expects Japan to drop the “zero sum” idea of who will lead the group, stressing that the creation of an East Asian community will not succeed unless Asia’s two economic giants cooperate. In this framework, ignoring India will be a mistake in the long term.

There is yet another angle from which the EAC idea can be analysed. It could be seen from the perspective of a game played between two great powers - China and the US. In this framework, Japan and South Korea are middle powers, allied with the US but have the option to exit in favour of a China-led regional order under the EAC. With the US fully engaged in the Asian region, it is unlikely to provide an opportunity to either Japan or South Korea to exercise the exit option. Secondly, the Trilateral Summit looks inward, focusing on coordination and cooperation among member states rather than joint leadership of a wider East Asia. Thirdly, domestic forces within Japan and China conspire against a “European moment in East Asia”. Hatoyama has not obtained the domestic consensus needed for the EAC and any activism on this issue without domestic approval will be perilous. As regards South Korea, it is a small player in this power game and will be incapable of exercising its own choices and will go with the popular will of the region. These factors suggest that community building in East Asia envisioned in the Trilateral Summit is still a distant reality.

Thus it transpires that the Trilateral Summit is an inappropriate vehicle for advancing the EAC. Since there are issues embracing the interests of other countries in the region as well such as financial crisis, climate change, North Korea, prospects for FTAs, joint exploitation of maritime resources, etc, an exclusive sub-grouping in the Asian region is unlikely to succeed. The EAC idea may advance Japan-China cooperation to some extent for their mutual advantage but advancing this cooperation within an institutional framework seems premature and therefore unachievable. A possible Sino-Japanese rivalry for leadership role stemming from their perspectives of looking in zero-sum terms may blunt the fruition of East Asian multilateralism. The appropriate option for the Hatoyama government would be to take incremental steps aimed at building greater confidence and trust amongst Asian nations across a number of policy fronts rather than indulge in advancing grand ideas which appear at the moment unachievable. Working towards an agreement on an East Asian Free Trade Agreement between East Asian summit members should be the first right step.