Thu, 04 Dec 2003

The ASEAN-Japan summit

Although we fully understand and accept the reasons, we regret that Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi had to cancel her planned visit to Jakarta this week following the killing of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq on Saturday. Her visit to Jakarta was originally to discuss the final preparations for next week's ASEAN-Japan summit, which will be cochaired by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

We believe, however, that the cancellation will not affect the summit, whose purpose is to commemorate the 30th anniversary of relations between the regional grouping and Japan. As the diplomats' death is a sensitive issue in Tokyo at present, we hope that the summit will not be sidelined by Japan's domestic situation.

For the first time since its establishment in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold its summit outside the region. Koizumi's initiative is not the first such move by a Japanese leader. In the 1970s, for example, prime minister Takeo Fukuda was known for his "Fukuda Doctrine" on Southeast Asia. In 1998, Kiichi Miyazawa launched the US$30 billion "New Miyazawa Initiative" to help ASEAN countries face the economic crisis that had hit the region a year earlier.

Japan's position as the world's second-most powerful economy after the U.S., and as the largest investor and biggest donor in the ASEAN region -- plus the fact that Japan is ASEAN's most important trading partner -- makes the summit interesting to watch. It must be remembered, however, that geopolitical and economic conditions in this region were totally different in the 1970s to the situation that exists at present. A different response is therefore needed to the differing challenges.

Nations in the region are awaiting what concrete results they can expect from the summit for the advancement of the welfare and economic progress of both the region and for Japan, and what those results will mean for the improvement of political stability and security in Asia. Obviously, the hope in the region is that significant progress can be achieved, and we have every reason to believe that Japan is making serious preparations so it can come up with major workable initiatives to promote its relations with countries in the region. After all, a stable and prosperous ASEAN is crucial for Japan's own national security and economic interests.

According to press reports, Japan is likely to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) during the summit. China and India, two regional superpower countries in Asia, signed the TAC during the ASEAN Bali summit in October. Japan clearly wants to use the momentum of the Tokyo summit to join the treaty, although from an ASEAN perspective it would have been much better if Japan had signed the document in Bali, on ASEAN soil.

It is encouraging to see significant signs of Japan's economic recovery after more than 10 years of recession. The magnitude of the country's economy is proven by the fact that it remains the second strongest economy on the planet, despite the steep recession and deflation it is facing.

Although China's economy continues to show high growth, and China is regarded by many as the world's new economic power, Japan's economic role at this point remains the major pillar for Asia, especially ASEAN. The region's economic and trade ties with Japan and that country's huge official development assistance to Southeast Asian countries are a crucial factor for the region's economic progress. That role is not likely to change drastically, even in the long run.

Of course, it would be naive to claim that ASEAN is the most important partner for Japan and that therefore Tokyo should concentrate on the region. Japan at present is a global economic superpower, although politically it is widely regarded more as one of the most loyal allies of the U.S.

In the light of all this, we regret, however, to have to note that Japan's history during the Second World War and its occupation of several countries in this region during that period of its history remain traumatic, haunting not only the individual victims affected, but their nations as well. This factor often causes Japan to seem hesitant to play its international role to the fullest. Even in facing the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, where its national security is at stake, Japan is very careful in confronting North Korea, which often uses Japan's past occupation of the peninsula as a convenient tool to attack it.

When the 10 ASEAN leaders -- including Myanmar's Prime Minister Gen. Than Shwe, who received some harsh words of warning from Koizumi over the detention of Myanmarese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi when they met during the Bali summit -- sit together with Prime Minister Koizumi on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12, all of them hope that they can return home with good news. This means that the summit should have a substantive agenda tabled for discussion, not just a meeting to strengthen friendship, as some critics maintain.