Thu, 25 Dec 2003

When will the Japanese sleeping giant awaken in global affairs?

Dmitry Kosyrev RIA Novosti Moscow

Several of Japan's most prominent politicians, including ex- premier Ryutaro Hashimoto and the former foreign ministers, Taro Nakayama and Masahiko Komura, have embarked on a tour of world capitals in a bid to explain why Japan is sending troops to Iraq.

If only a company of political celebrities could trumpet the awakening of the "sleeping giant" of Japan's foreign policy not only in Iraq, but also in other regions. This is what the countries neighboring Japan, Russia included, would like to see. They follow Japan's diplomatic efforts, insisting they should be more impressive and clearer.

Take the East Asian Community, for example. The leaders of Japan and ten countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently attended a summit in Tokyo and signed a declaration establishing this community, which would be a good idea if not it were for Japan. Indeed, Japan is like a man who is trying to catch up with the others without really wishing to do so. The country should, probably, be more proactive in its own region, near its national borders.

What agreements did the Tokyo summit bring? To begin with it was a jubilee event, which marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of "new" relations between Tokyo and South East Asia. This is a somewhat artificial date, while the same can be said about the agreements signed at the summit. Those present, for example, signed a declaration proclaiming Japan's relations with ASEAN to be special, like its relations with the U.S. or Great Britain. This means that political and security issues will be also prominent on the agenda for co-operation between Japan and South East Asia.

This is all rhetoric, although logical and long-expected rhetoric. Indeed, since the 1977 Fukuda doctrine, Japan has not pursued any distinct policy in the region, at least not in the past 10 years. When Asian leaders reproached Japan for political inactivity, its foreign policy establishment took a deep breath and set out a required set of statements, and that is about all.

The economic idea behind the new East Asian Community is not clear, either. The Japanese premier promised the summit that he would accelerate the drafting of free trade agreements, above all, with Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, and to provide US$1.5 billion on development programs in the Mekong River basin, thereby helping ASEAN's poorest members, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Moreover, Japan promised the same amount for programs to train education and state management specialists.

However, there is nothing revolutionary about these promises. They are only a fraction of the integration process in East and South East Asia, which is advancing without much ado. In 1980, commodity turnover between Asian countries accounted for 22.8 percent of their overall foreign trade, whereas today the figure is 50 percent. This is more than the trade turnover in North America, or the NAFTA zone, and only a little less than in the European Union.

However, the driving force behind Asian integration is not Japan, but China and the ten leading ASEAN economies. They advance initiatives, working to remove trade barriers. Their political rapprochement determines Asia's policy. Asia's free economic zone is emerging rapidly to cover 1.7 billion people producing nearly $2 trillion in GDP a year, while regional trade is worth $1.2 trillion. Once the zone has been established, ASEAN exports to China will go up by 48 percent, while China's exports to ASEAN countries will increase by 55 percent. This process and the U.S.'s economic upturn will allow the East Asian economies to grow by an average of 5.7 percent as early as next year.

Japan has also been part of this process through the "10+3" project, i.e. ASEAN plus Japan, China and South Korea. It has advanced its own program, which neither runs counter to the "10+3" project, nor hinders the project. In reality, there is not much in the Japan-proposed program.

However, Japan remains ASEANs second largest trade partner after the U.S., as its regional trade is three times that the volume of China's. Japan's investment in the region surpasses China's by 56 times, while $2.1 billion, or 60 percent of overall foreign aid to the region's poorest nations, comes from Japan every year. Japan has invested in and traded with the region without making much fuss about it or claiming a political role that would be more appropriate for its economic contribution.

Japan is also keeping a low profile at talks on North Korea. Yet, the country will readily open its coffers and make the most generous contribution when the negotiators reach an agreement on the problem. The other countries involved will be morally prepared for such a move.

Japan is sending from 500 to 700 soldiers to Iraq. This will be the first time that Japan will deploy its troops on foreign soil since World War II. Equipped with portable anti-tank systems, they will be Japan's most heavily armed contingents.

However, Japan made this move after months, or even years, of pressure from the U.S. Again, Tokyo sighed deeply and agreed to contribute troops.

This is amazing. Although it is the second largest economy in the world, Japan hardly plays any significant role in international affairs. It will take China, which is the leading political power in today's Asia, 15 to 20 years to reach Japan's economic level.

In theory, China and Japan, which account for up to 80 percent of Asia's overall GDP, could be major political players in the region. Yet, China is so far playing the lead, with Japan following, according to Li Guangyao, Singapore's Prime Minister.

But why have Asian countries and Russia been urging Japan to take action in recent years? Things were totally different in the 1970-80s. Japan was persecuted with accusations about World War II aggression and suspected of revenge attempts. The reason behind the current dissatisfaction with the country's political inactivity may be purely psychological. The world cannot understand why the country is not using its economic might for political purposes. The world is waiting for the "sleeping giant" to wake up. Japan's awakening does not necessarily promise anything positive, but the world is nevertheless urging it for the sake of clarity.

What Asian countries want to clarify is whether Japan will emerge as a competitor, and to what degree, or as a partner.

What will be Japan's relationship with India, a new world leader in information technologies? India has positioned itself as a major IT producer in Asia. Will Japan and China clash over the development of the Mekong basin and the South East Asian market as a whole? Will it encounter problems with Russia over oil and gas projects in Siberia and North Korea's future? Japan's contribution to ensuring regional security and, hence, involvement in anti-terrorist efforts in the Muslim countries of Southeast Asia, is yet another issue that needs clarification. And finally, will Tokyo remain the U.S.'s steadfast ally in Asia or will it pursue an independent policy on certain matters?

Only when the sleeping giant awakens will we know the answers to these questions.