IDSA COMMENT

Japan’s quest for East Asian Community

October 28, 2009

Within six days of assuming office, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama mooted a proposal to form an East Asian Community (EAC) during his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. When he made a similar proposition on his campaign trail during the recently held Japanese general elections, the concept seemed utopian. But Hatoyama seems committed to the idea as he renewed the concept during his visit to Seoul and Beijing soon after his US visit. Inching closer towards achieving the goal of regional integration, the leaders of three countries signed a trilateral cooperation agreement on 10 October 2009 in Beijing in which the three parties, Japan, China and South Korea made their commitment for the “development of East Asian community based on principles of openness, transparency, inclusiveness as a long term goal and to regional cooperation…,”.

Japan’s haste to push for a regional grouping is apparently driven by its economic concerns as it needs help from its biggest trading partner China and immediate neighbour South Korea (which together with Japan account for 16% of global GDP) to weather the current economic crisis. But the Japanese idea of creating an inclusive East Asian community differs with that of China. Japanese Foreign Minister Okada said that the envisaged community will include Japan, China and South Korea, including 10 member states of ASEAN plus India, Australia, New Zealand. In contrast China wants to restrict the membership to ASEAN+3, though it has not opposed inclusion of other countries this time.

Though Hatoyama has been vague about the idea of forming the community and has not made it clear about how this institution will be different from the 16 member East Asian Summit led by ASEAN, which has already held four annual summits beginning in 2005. ASEAN maintains that it will hold the driving seat at the Summit. Taking this fact into account, it seems that Japan wants to occupy the leadership position in the EAC and thus its ambition goes beyond its “entrepreneurial foreign policy.” Its effort to create a different grouping with the same members is bound to create a clash of interest with ASEAN. But Japan’s thinking is that it will be able to maintain its supremacy in the grouping since it has mooted the idea, seems to be a tad immature. It is likely to lose the leadership of the organization to China, which, as the world’s number three economic power is set to surpass Japan which is world’s number two world economy by 2010. In such a scenario, China will be the top most economy in the region and will claim its legitimate right to assume a leadership role in the grouping. A competitive relationship between China and Japan may develop to maintain their leadership role in the region.

Japan claims to emulate the EU model to form an inclusive community. A joint statement issued by China, South Korea and Japan in early October 2009 expressed a commitment to explore a free trade agreement, thereby hinting that it is inching closer in that direction. But the optimism that East Asia will realize the goal of European Union (EU) type integration does not seem realistic since historical issues still impede normal diplomatic relations. Compared to Germany’s complete renunciation of Nazism, Japan continues to reject responsibility for World War II and despite Hatoyama’s announcement that his Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) leaders will not visit Yasukuni Shrine dedicated to soldiers including convicted war criminals, few elected DPJ leaders joined their Liberal Democratic Party counterparts in paying homage to the shrine on 21 October. The visits of Japanese leaders to the shrine in the past have drawn flak from its erstwhile colonies, which view the shrine as symbols of Japanese militarism and regard the visit to it by officials as insensitive and inconsistent with the apology Japan offered for its atrocities during colonial expansion.

Japan’s unresolved territorial disputes with its neighbours also strain normal relations with these countries. Japan and China had been at loggerheads over the sovereignty of Senkaku Islands while disputes with Russia have lingered for the last 60 years over their respective claims on the Northern Territories known as the Kurile Islands. With South Korea it has a dispute over Takeshima (doktok) island. Therefore, until Japan resolves its territorial disputes with its neighbours an EU type regional integration mechanism seems unlikely.

Japan is taking a “top down approach” in forming the community by discussing this issue at the leadership level with regional countries. But a European Union kind of Community can only take shape when it is pursued through a “bottom up approach”, that is, if the impetus comes from people in the region instead of the leadership. Among common people a strong dislike persists between Chinese and Japanese towards each other. A recent survey jointly conducted by China Daily and Genron - a Japanese NGO- found that “more than half of each nation still dislike the other.” The same survey when it tried to ascertain the first thing that comes to China’s mind when they think about Japan, over half of the Chinese respondents identified the Nanjing massacre. A 2008 opinion poll conducted by Chosun Ilbo- a leading South Korean newspaper - indicated that a majority of 31.4% respondents considered Japan the most unfavourable country followed by North Korea with 29.5%. Thus these opinion polls suggest that common people in the region do not have a better image about Japan - the country which is taking the lead to cobble together the EAC.

The only hope to form an East Asian community comes from increasing economic interdependence in the region, but this alone will not be enough to create a regional organization. The entire region needs to get rid of historical animosities, and only then an EU type regional integration system can take shape.