Thu, 18 Dec 2003

Scaling new heights in ASEAN-Japan ties

S. Pushpanathan, Head, ASEAN Plus Three Cooperation, Jakarta

The ASEAN-Japan Summit in Tokyo last week concluded on a high note and with resounding success for both ASEAN and Japan in every aspect of their cooperation.

The substantive Tokyo Declaration and its Plan of Action, which outlined more than 100 measures, reflected the dynamism of the relationship and the commitment of both sides to develop an enduring and comprehensive mutual partnership in the 21st century.

The Summit endorsed the contribution of Japan to ASEAN's economic development and prosperity in the past three decades. Japan is the second largest trading partner of ASEAN and Japanese companies have invested more than US$100 billion in the region since the founding of ASEAN in 1967.

Japan had steadfastly supported ASEAN countries during the financial crisis of 1997-1998 by providing assistance amounting to about $80 billion and keeping its market open to ASEAN exports. Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA) to ASEAN countries amounted to $23 billion in the last ten years or about 30 percent of Japan's total ODA. ASEAN is expected to continue gaining the lion share of Japanese ODA for the foreseeable future.

In terms of future relations, ASEAN affirmed that ASEAN-Japan relations will continue to be a cornerstone for a peaceful, stable and prosperous East Asia. Japan has committed to providing more than $3 billion assistance to ASEAN for human resource development (HRD) and exchange programs and for the development of the Mekong sub-region. The HRD and exchange program will take up $1.5 billion in three years and will involve 40,000 people from the region.

The Mekong assistance will see development of infrastructure and other capacity building activities to help integrate the Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam (CLMV) countries into ASEAN. Other sub-regions such as the East ASEAN Growth Area covering Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and the new Economic Cooperation Strategy covering Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand could also receive Japanese assistance.

In order to realize the ASEAN-Japan comprehensive economic partnership (CEP), Japan will enter into economic partnership agreements (EPA) with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The EPAs are expected to be highly beneficial since the three countries account for 75 percent of total trade with Japan. Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Viet Nam have indicated their interest to Japan to follow suit. Singapore has already an EPA with Japan and has started to reap the benefits with its exports to Japan increasing by 30 percent since the launching of the EPA.

The EPAs are different from a free trade area (FTA) since they would go beyond trade and will encompass services, investments, tourism, standardization of regulation and intellectual property rights and others. The EPAs are similar to the CEP and therefore will serve as building blocks for the realization of the ASEAN- Japan CEP, including the most lucrative ASEAN-Japan FTA by 2012.

The conclusion of the EPAs between Japan and the ASEAN countries will see the emergence of a major economic zone with a population of 650 million and a combined GDP of $5 trillion making it an extremely attractive market and production base. This will also set the stage for the East Asia Free Trade Area recommended by the East Asia Study Group whose recommendation were adopted by the ASEAN Plus Three Summit in Phnom Penh in 2003.

Japan will help to set up a Malaysia-Japan International University in Kuala Lumpur to assist ASEAN in training the workforce in ASEAN countries to undertake higher value added economic activities, facilitate transfer of management know-how and inculcate the discipline and resourcefulness seen among Japanese workers.

Political and security cooperation, an area of cooperation which has been less developed in the relations, received a shot in the arm. ASEAN and Japan will cooperate more intensively in combating terrorism, piracy and in the area of disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A launching of a meeting specifically for addressing counter-terrorism is on the cards. Japan welcomes these steps including anti-piracy since the Straits of Malacca, which accounts for 60 percent of sea piracy worldwide, is the lifeline of Japanese commerce.

One perceived set back as many saw it was the failure of Japan to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia. However, this was compensated by the signing of a declaration of accession to the TAC by Japan pledging its commitment to accede to the TAC. Japan is expected to become a party to the TAC after it has duly completed its legal procedures for accession to the TAC which could be as early as June 2004.

The Summit reaffirmed the vision for an East Asian community without any specific time frame and that ASEAN-Japan relations will serve as a foundation for the building of the community.

The decisions and initiatives taken at the Tokyo Summit was indeed commendable as the meeting has been one of the most rewarding in the history of ASEAN's external relations. The next most important step now is to implement the Action Plan and in the most efficient time possible. How could this be accomplished?

First, ASEAN and Japan will have to meet and brainstorm on how the Plan could be implemented. Since the Plan consist of 6 specific sections and 44 areas covering more than 100 measures in the economic and financial cooperation, political and security, social and cultural aspects, East Asia cooperation and others, ASEAN and Japan should develop specific work programs identifying the short-term, medium term and long term measures so that resources could be channeled to the priority measures.

Second, ASEAN and Japan should develop specific projects to implement the measures proposed for each of the area in the Plan based on the strengths of the cooperation, ASEAN's needs and Japanese expertise and capacities, and premised on the principle of mutual benefit.

Third, a practical and effective monitoring and coordinating mechanism would be required to ensure early and substantive outcomes. While the ASEAN Secretariat could act as the coordinating mechanism, the ASEAN-Japan Senior Officials Meeting and the ASEAN-Japan Consultative Group Meeting should be responsible for the implementation of the Action Plan. These meetings could report to the ASEAN-Japan Foreign Ministers' meeting held in conjunction with the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences in June or July every year.

Fourth, the ASEAN-Japan Summit should review the implementation annually when it meets and set new directions, where appropriate, since the Action Plan is envisage as a progressive document which would take into account the dynamic regional environment and developments in international relations.

The path for achieving new heights in ASEAN-Japan relations has been laid. It is now up to ASEAN and Japan to come together to scale the altitude with their minds focused on reaching the peak for a more rewarding and highly satisfying partnership.

The writer is also Head of External Relations in the ASEAN Secretariat. The views expressed are personal.