Tue, 15 Jan 2002

Time for PM Koizumi to show where Japan is headed

Atsushi Yamada, Asian Bureau, Bangkok, The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Sunday wound up his tour of five Southeast Asian countries. Asia is now at a historical turning point. A half century after Europe, a move toward regional integration is emerging in East Asia. How should Japan deal with it? The prime minister, who is advocating "reform" at home, should show clearly Japan's direction in Asian diplomacy.

Referring to the Japan-Thai summit, Thai Foreign Minister Surakiat Sathirathai said the establishment of a free trade agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan was a main item on the agenda, urging Japan to open free trade.

ASEAN plans to complete the establishment of a free trade area with China within the next 10 years. Japanese companies started advancing into other Asian markets in the 1980s, and more than 10,000 of them operate in ASEAN today. But China is making its presence felt in the region even stronger than Japan has done.

An estimated 50 million Chinese Asians have put down roots in local communities across Southeast Asia and are playing key roles in business and producing politicians. China, which embarked on joining international society with its policy of reform and openness, merges with Chinese Asians who move local economies, and is expected to grow even stronger in the 21st century.

ASEAN, which cannot ward off Chinese influence, is looking to Japan to play the role of "balancer," according to Thai diplomatic sources.

ASEAN wants Japan to be part of a tripolar structure, together with China and ASEAN, to disperse power. If Japan joins the picture, Chinese influence would get that much weaker. Furthermore, to compete with Chinese products, Japanese technology and funds are indispensable. This is the wisdom of ASEAN as it deals with major powers. It is also to Japan's advantage to form stronger ties with ASEAN.

In the past, Japan failed to be part of the "Asian circle" twice. In 1990, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called on Japan to join the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC). However, Japan turned down the invitation out of deference to the United States, which was unhappy with the idea of an exclusively Asian union. Consequently, EAEC suffered a setback.

The second time was when Japan proposed the establishment of an Asian monetary fund. Again, the plan was met with U.S. opposition on grounds that if Asia created a fund without international approval, it would undermine the influence of the International Monetary Fund. The Finance Ministry bowed to U.S. pressure and the plan was aborted.

The third time is the charm and this is Japan's chance to prove it.

Quite a few politicians eventually foresee an East Asian community beyond a free trade agreement. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung had intellectuals from Japan, China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and ASEAN draw up a vision of East Asian regional integration and a common currency, saying bureaucrats are unable to draw a grand picture because they are concerned about the difficulties involved in doing the actual work.

It may look like "a dream beyond dreams" to create a community in East Asia, where language, culture and religion are diverse. However, when the European Coal and Steel Community debuted after World War II, very few people foresaw the emergence of the euro. It is difficult to actually perceive the feeling toward "regional integration" in Japan, an island nation whose economy is half the size of Europe.

ASEAN is currently moving to establish an Asian free trade area (AFTA). Soon China will join it and South Korea will make the picture even grander.

In addition to young people who leave Japan to seek work in Asia, a growing number of older people are moving to Asia after retirement. More people are appreciating what they share in common with fellow Asians rather than feeling estranged with each other's differences. In urban areas, a middle class that can share cultures and values with Japan is growing. They are expected to be the driving force to advance regional stability and integration.

Thanks to the changing awareness of people, national borders are getting lower. Diplomacy and politics, which are lagging behind, need to catch up with it.