Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why An East Asian Community Matters

The concept of an East Asian Community (EAC), which Yukio Hatoyama strongly advocated even before he was elected as Japan's prime minister in September, has aroused heated debate in the countries concerned, including economic powerhouse China.

The summit of China, Japan and South Korea in Beijing last week did not formally discuss or endorse the formation of the EAC, but this does not mean China is not interested in the idea. The crux of the matter is how to make the formation feasible.

According to some sources, the trilateral summit last week did not to discuss EAC simply because no feasible proposal was presented for discussion. The feasibility of the EAC is something worth discussion, and in China its "workability" is widely debated. The idea of the EAC was not initiated by Hatoyama. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said as early as 1990 that East Asia (including Southeast Asia) should unite as a community to reduce the influence of the United States in the region and to enhance independence. The former prime minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, had also once advocated the formation of the EAC.

Regional integration and cooperation on a similar concept started in the 1980s, long before the EAC idea was conceived. Why has the idea now become more attractive than before, especially as the process of actual economic integration in the region has been in progress for years?

This can be explained from two perspectives. One is the fast development of regional economies, symbolized by the rise of East Asian countries, international trade and financial cooperation in the region. These trends demand a higher degree of East Asian integration, especially amid and in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Fast economic growth and the need for closer financial cooperation in East Asia demand closer ties among the countries of the region.

Nevertheless, what motivated Japan's new leader to advocate the EAC is more about Japan's national interests.

Japan was occupied by the United States after the end of World War II, in 1945. The US-Japan alliance was formed when the Cold War began, and strengthened when the Korea War broke out in the early 1950s. Even after the Cold War came to an end in the 1990s, the US-Japan bond has not dissolved.

Since 1945, Japan has hardly been an independent state politically or diplomatically, and its defense and foreign policies are highly dependent on US policy toward the Japanese.

For many years, Japan has largely benefited from this alliance and its dependence on the US. Yet, in the post-Cold War era, Japan's importance to the US has declined, and its economy has been mired in periods of recession or slow growth. In recent years, especially after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the US has concentrated more on the Middle East and its war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda In turn, Japan has increasingly felt that its national security is not safeguarded - especially from the perceived threats of North Korea and China.
Japan now seeks a more independent relationship with the US to enhance its national interests and influence in East Asia. Being a leader or an influential founding member of the EAC would promote Japanese interests and enhance its lost power.

Suspicions have arisen about Japan's "selfish" motives in proposing the EAC. Still, a country's foreign policy is primarily meant to serve its national interests. The question is whether other countries - such as China - could also benefit from formation of the EAC.

China could benefit. First of all, a more independent Japan and a new regional organization like an EAC are both in accord with China’s diplomatic strategy of striving for a multipolar world. The successful construction of a comprehensive community in East Asia would promote long-term peace and stability in the region - a crucial factor for China to develop its economy. Closer regional integration would help China divert its exports, and reduce its reliance on US and European markets. Given China's economic muscle today, it could certainly play a leading role in the EAC.

Mutual trust is of utmost importance to make the EAC feasible. In this regard, Japan needs to adopt a more sincere attitude about its alleged war crimes in the past to win back the trust of Asian neighbors. Because of historical feuds, territorial disputes, conflicts and mistrust among countries in the region, a number of analysts in China, as well as in Japan and other Asia countries, have thrown cold water on the EAC idea. Some have called it "mission impossible". Still, many scholars in China still feel an EAC is feasible if it is approached with economic integration based on existing mechanisms - and other controversies can be set aside for the time being.

Last week, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders agreed on deeper cooperation among the three countries as key trade partners. Japan, after all, is the biggest importer of China-made goods. Closer cooperation between these three countries could be a starting point for the formation of the EAC.

South Korea could also benefit from the EAC. Such a regional bloc would enhance Seoul's international position as an equal partner of China and Japan in the grouping. These three economically vital countries in East Asia should theoretically all support the EAC idea. There is also the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with which China is soon to sign a free trade agreement.

Hatoyama did not elaborate on his EAC idea. He and his colleagues have claimed in recent weeks that this community should consist of 16 countries, including Australia, New Zealand and India. Hatoyama has never stated clearly whether the EAC should be an economic cooperation body or whether cooperation should extend to other areas, such as military agreements and diplomatic ties. Beijing may be in favor of a community with 13 countries - such as the ASEAN+3 which is currently in operation.

To make things easier, the EAC should be formed as a body of economic cooperation in non-disputed areas to start with. Only after mutual trust is gained by its members through economic cooperation, can cooperation in other fields be discussed.

There are other obstacles to the formation of the EAC. The US won't approve of a regional community dominated by East Asian powers, and would have a hard time tolerating Japan's total independence. Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state in charge of Asian and Pacific affairs, claimed in Beijing last Wednesday that the US should not be excluded from the East Asian Community.

There also seems to be little urgency for the EAC to be formed; there are no strong pressures or urgent national security threats from outside the region to stir immediate action. In the past, such motivating factors have swiftly united neighboring countries and accelerated regional integration and solidarity. For example, when Western Europe began its integration in the 1950s, it was threatened by the former Soviet Union and its communist bloc proxies.

The emergence of ASEAN was also stimulated by outside threats.

Yet, among East Asian economic or political powers, apart from Japanese fears over would-be threats from North Korea and China, no country worries much about military threats or political subversion. Additionally, the existing de facto international arrangements for integration, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN+3 and the East Asia Summit, are functioning at the moment.

Historical and territorial issues in East Asia will likely also remain a barrier for this region's integration. It remains difficult for China and Japan to transfer the resources of economic development in debated sea areas to a multinational institution, as European nations did in the early stages of integration. In regards to these difficulties and challenges, some argue that the EAC is still impossible. Yet difficulties, challenges and differences should not be an excuse to forsake the commitment to East Asia’s integration.

The construction of an international community is never completed overnight. The European Union, for example, originated from the European Community, which started the end of World War II, when the two biggest members of the community - France and
Germany - were enemies. This suggests that two enemies can be friends under the framework of one international community. Furthermore, the community is never a finished framework but a changing process of integration. If France and Germany can be friends and push together for regional integration, so can China, Japan and Korea.

The EAC should be gradually pushed forward. Because even the movement's chief advocate, Hatoyama, cannot depict clearly its structure, and there is no consensus on the EAC's aims and functions, the community should be built gradually from the low to high levels. It should be first organized as a free trade region under a technological and societal cooperative structure.

The success and significance of the East Asian Community will be based on its different mission with regard to other Asian regional organizations, such as APEC, ASEAN+3 and the East Asian Summit. Its main function would be to provide East Asia with stability and economic prosperity. Other aspects and ambitions can only be realized once this first step is taken. By Dr Jian Junbo assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.

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