There was a time when newly elected Japanese leaders went on their pilgrimage of ASEAN countries bearing generous aid packages for its less well-off Southeast Asian neighbors. Because Japan is mired in deep recession, the custom has changed.
(Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi) comes bearing an all- encompassing proposal to strengthen Japan's economic ties with Southeast Asia. He envisions an open economic relationship which links Japan with ASEAN, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. This is a big, inclusive concept which leaves no one important out. Can Japan deliver?
Japan is responding to China's move to establish the world's largest free-trade area with ASEAN. This sort of competition gives ground for cautious optimism. It is inconceivable that Tokyo is content to stand back and watch its perceived economic influence wane because it is outdone by Beijing.
If Tokyo is to foster closer ties with Southeast Asia, it cannot get too preoccupied with its own economic morass and let China pass it by. Its "new age" economic partnership with Singapore is a good model. But Tokyo is reluctant to take chances. Which is why the Japanese have to be stung into action, in this case by the Chinese initiative, to open up.
Tokyo should thus be bold and imaginative to, in Mr Koizumi's words, "build an economic community with the ASEAN countries that carries some sense of oneness". Yes, proceed step by step, but there must be no doubts about moving decisively for regional economic integration. Would he be the one to break the mold and get things started?
-- The Straits Times, Singapore