Tue, 30 Dec 2003

ASEAN reticent about Japan's EAC plan

Kornelius Purba, The Jakarta Post, Tokyo

Southeast Asian nations have expressed support for Japan's ambitious idea of an Asian version of the European Union -- but they are still going to wait and see if Japan is sincere about improving economic and trade relations with its neighbors in the region.

This was conveyed by Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to his host, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, during the two-day Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo earlier this month.

In a conversation with The Jakarta Post after the summit, the ASEAN-Japan Center Secretary General Nobutisho Akao quoted Goh as saying that Japan, especially its corporations, should accelerate the transfer of technology to their counterparts in Southeast Asia.

Goh also pointed out that Japanese companies were way behind western multinational companies in giving maximum promotional opportunities to local executives working for them, said Akao who was present during the summit sessions.

"Local employees working at western companies can even reach the highest position in the companies operating in the respective countries," Akao quoted Goh as telling Koizumi.

The Singaporean leader's remarks demonstrated that although Japan remains the most important trading partner, investor and money lender for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), there is also a long list of complaints from the regional grouping.

Of course Japan also has its issues. Amid the rapid growth of China's economy and global influence, Japan can no longer take its number one position in the region for granted. ASEAN also cannot simply use the China factor in wooing more investment and trade from Japan, because, in the end, money will only flow to countries where profit can be made.

Koizumi invited ASEAN's 10 leaders to attend the 30th commemoration of Japan-ASEAN ties on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12, where he presented some details of his East Asian Community (EAC) plan, although he did not propose any concrete timeframe to achieve it. In Koizumi's version, Japan and ASEAN would become the main driving force of the EAC and he indicated that China and South Korea would also be involved in its establishment.

The Prime Minister pointed out that Japan and ASEAN had agreed on "more than 100 concrete measures in economic and development areas, as well as political, security, social and cultural areas" most of which would be financed by Japan.

Japan however, nearly embarrassed the ASEAN leaders with its reluctance to sign the regional body's work of pride, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). China and India had signed the treaty during the ASEAN annual summit in Bali two months ago, and Japan had refused to. Japan cited numerous reasons behind its postponement, including its close relations with the United States.

In Tokyo, Koizumi eventually agreed to make a compromise. Japan pledged its intention to accede to the TAC. According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirayuda, ASEAN expects that Japan will eventually sign the treaty before next year's annual summit in Laos.

"If ASEAN friends wish us to sign the treaty there is no reason for us not to sign it," Koizumi replied when asked why he changed his mind after just two months.

Japanese officials hinted that, although China was quicker in signing on to the treaty, Japan would be much more committed to the treaty when it does sign.

"After ratification in parliament we will fully implement the treaty. Do you think that China will ask its parliament for ratification?" asked an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It is probably true that the TAC is more a symbol rather than an effective legal framework for ASEAN. Therefore, to sign it or not will not mean much for Japan or other countries. However, reluctance to do so could be perceived as Japan's insincerity toward its neighbors.

And how about the EAC plan? At present, this also remains more of a symbol of Japan's ambition to retain its position as the main pillar of East Asia's economy.

So why has ASEAN enthusiastically supported Koizumi's agenda? ASEAN apparently believes that it is much better to be involved in the EAC process from the very beginning, and thus able to benefit from the intensifying rivalry between Japan and China in the region.

When ASEAN announced its seemingly utopian plan to create the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1991, many people laughed. But now the AFTA dream is closer to reality than most could have imagined. Maybe ASEAN did indeed make the right decision to support Koizumi's dream this time.

Japan worked hard to become a perfect host during the summit. The media center provided laptop computers for journalists, however instructions to use them were unclear, as Japanese characters would pop up when one pressed the Latin keys.

Though a trivial matter, if we fail to perceive a friend's needs in little things, it would require even more effort and insight to understand his larger needs.

The writer covered the Tokyo-ASEAN Summit at the invitation of Japan's Foreign Ministry.