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Japan needs its own `Asian' vision

When national leaders meet, the meetings are called summits. Whether to call one ``a summit'' or ``the summit'' depends on how definitive it is. If it is just an idea, it is a summit. When it materializes and has a concrete status, it is called the summit.

The word community can also be spelled in upper or lower case depending on its status. If it is lower case, it serves a simple function. But a community with a capital C is a solid mechanism.

The 10-plus-three summit recently held in Vientiane comprising members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan, China and South Korea agreed to hold an East Asian summit next year and set a long-term target to build an East Asian community.

For both summit and community, China's Xinhua News Agency uses lower case, while the English version of the People's Daily uses upper case. There seems to be no consensus among ASEAN members. Some use lower case and others upper case. Perhaps this is ASEAN style. Up until recently, the Japanese government had called them with indefinite articles and used lower case. But with the decision in Vientiane, it started to use a definite article with reference to the summit.

However, its vision is still blurry. It can be likened to a monochromatic ink painting with lots of blank spaces.

For example, how should 10-plus-three summits be positioned in relation to East Asian summits? The Chinese ambassador to Malaysia said 10-plus-three should be renamed the East Asian summit. It may be what China really wants but no decision has been reached.

Economy is the driving force of regionalism. East Asian economic integration is advancing rapidly. The ratio of regional trade in 2002 was nearly 52 percent. Although it is lower than the European Union's 62 percent, it is higher than the North American Free Trade Agreement's 46 percent.

As the trend advances, the region is becoming less dependent on the United States as a trade partner. In other words, the Asianization of Asia.

The United States appears uneasy with the trend. During his recent visit to Japan, Mitchell Reiss, director of policy planning of the U.S. State Department, expressed concern over the East Asian summit. Giving a personal view, Reiss said, ``The United States has equities and interests in East Asia as a Western Pacific power and does not want to be excluded from regional dialogue and cooperation.''

The United States is worried that the summit could eventually be used as a tool for China to dominate East Asia.

A high-ranking U.S. government official I met in Washington voiced the opinion that China is positioning East Asian regionalism from a long-term strategic viewpoint. It is aimed at excluding the United States and isolating Japan, he said. Properly speaking, Japan cannot possibly afford to advocate Asian regionalism, the official stressed.

I refuted his argument saying, if Japan turns its back on East Asian regionalism, it would be isolating itself from Asia. But he did not buy it.

The United States is forgetting that distrust toward it underlies the formation of 10-plus-three. During the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, ASEAN felt it was abandoned by the United States. ``Back then, I asked an American friend why the United States didn't help Thailand and my friend said it's because the United States does not share a border with it,'' an angry Thai economist recalled.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States also consequently widened the psychological gap between it and Asia, leading the latter to suspect that the United States is only interested in eradicating radical Islamic terrorists.

Asia is fully aware of the importance of the U.S. presence as a stabilizer in the region and that of the Japan-U.S. alliance. East Asian regionalism and the Japan-U.S. alliance can compatibly build a relationship of prosperous coexistence. It is not a matter of choosing one or the other.

The United States should also understand that a sense of vulnerability and fragility shared by neighboring countries is what makes them turn to regionalism. U.S.-led globalization often provokes that perception. Instead of just stressing its strength, the United States is urged to recover its sensitivity to feel the weaknesses and vulnerability of others.

First, the United States should strengthen its ties with ASEAN under a framework of ASEAN-plus-one. And more than anything else, it should make an effort at rebuilding the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Japan should also help to strengthen the APEC with the United States.

In 1993, when APEC was upgraded to include a summit, the United States issued a ``vision statement'' aimed at creating ``a Pacific community.'' It tried to express community in upper case but was met by the objection of the Chinese delegation: APEC is not the European Community. We must not form an economic bloc. It should be spelled in lower case.

As the Asianization of Asia proceeds, U.S.-Chinese rivalry within East Asia is expected to intensify.

Japan must overcome its dependence on the United States and its fear of China and develop its own Asian vision. Japan's role and mission will become increasingly heavy. (2004/12/14)








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