East Asian Economic Community Idea Places Pressure on Japan
John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)
News sources in Japan and abroad are increasingly preoccupied with the future of Japan's relationship with China. In its March 26 article entitled "So hard to be friends – China and Japan," Britain's Economist magazine characterized Japan-China ties as complex and difficult to read. In Japan, the Yomiuri Shinbun has featured a series of articles claiming that Japan is at a crossroads, when its leadership has to decide between approximation with China or the United States.
Stimulating much of this dialogue has been the promotion of the idea of an East Asian Economic Community, which will include ASEAN members plus South Korea, China and Japan. The first East Asian Summit taking up this notion is scheduled for later this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Considering increasing value in trade and the trend toward economic interdependence among ASEAN and East Asian countries, the notion of establishing a community seems logical. However, commentators in Japan fear that this proposal, pushed by China, is meant to replace the Asia Pacific Economic Forum and ultimately exclude the United States. In the minds of conservative Japanese analysts, China's objective in promoting this structure is aimed at driving a wedge between the US and Japan.
Commentators writing in the Yomiuri Shinbun (Yoshiyuki Kasai and Yoshio Okubo) continue to push Japanese authorities to negotiate US participation in the East Asian Summit. In his article, Kasai argued that Japan should insist on "its right to collective self-defense with the US; positively accept the presence of US forces; and create a configuration in which the Self-Defense Forces and the US military can closely cooperate." ("China-led plans for Asia threaten US alliance," Yomiuri, March 27) In all likelihood, such a stance will simply provoke mistrust between China and Japan and prove fatal for the creation of an East Asian Community. For its part, the United States government is not enthusiastic about the idea either. On March 9, Richard Armitage, former US deputy secretary of state, reckoned that the US is not "encouraged" by this suggestion. All indications point toward rising tension between the US and China and the situating of Japan in a difficult situation.
What is striking about discussions surrounding the East Asian Summit is the extent to which it demonstrates how issues long plaguing the region have yet to be dealt with. Similar negotiations took place in anticipation of the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. The aim of which was to establish a common understanding on problems encountering these states in the post-colonial world squeezed by super power rivalry. On that occasion, the US lobbied Japan to represent its interests in the conference fearing the formation of an Afro-Asian bloc.
The US has taken a similar approach to the East Asian Summit and continues to push Japan to be the protectorate of its interests in the region. The challenge for Japanese policy makers in the coming year will be to balance Japan's interests with the pressures placed upon them from their country's relationship with and dependence on the United States.