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Home > Special Topics > Undercurrent Last Updated: 15:19 03/09/2007
Undercurrent #12: December 24, 2003

Asia as an oval with two centres?

Tomohiko Taniguchi (Editor at Large, Nikkei Business Publications)


Genron NPO is a not-for-profit organisation founded two years ago to enhance Japan's genron, or public debate. In mid December it held a conference drawing a number of economists from China to discuss the future relationship between Japan and China. The NPO conducted a poll in conjunction with the conference and, revealingly, the respondents expressed highly forthcoming views on the bilateral relationship. The general tendency is such that a growing population in Japan seems to view the future of Japan as being tied more firmly with China. One should pause to consider how the triad relationship between the US, Japan and China will become entangled, if indeed Japan leans more toward the continental dragon.

To a question that asked which future course Japan should take in maintaining peace and stability in the region and beyond, 53% asserted that "while keeping the US-Japan alliance in good shape, Japan should enter firmer relations with Asian neighbours so that it could pursue constructing an independent security framework", whereas 13% maintained that "Japan should enhance the US-Japan alliance at any cost", and 8% "not the US-Japan but Sino-Japan alliance should be pursued".

Asked about the future economic integration Japan should aim at achieving, a majority of 55% responded by saying "it is true that the US-Japan economic ties remain important and the bilateral partnership needs to be enhanced yet further, a shift must be made for Japan to strengthen ties with Asian nations to the extent that Japan seeks economic integrations with China", while the same percentage of people, 13% each was split into two: pro-America and anti-America. The pro-camp sees the future lying in a strengthened relationship with the US, and the anti-camp with China.

More specifically about the free trade agreements that Japan should seek first and foremost, 30% favoured agreements with North East Asian countries like China and Korea.

On the currency front, which is another contentious issue, 29% want to see Japan's yen more widely used across Asia, becoming an international anchor currency in the region, whilst a staggering 53% favoured having a system that could evolve into something like an Asian Currency Unit.

Echoing these, conference participants almost unanimously agreed that in the future the relationship between China and Japan will become "the single most important bilateral relationship in Asia", dwarfing both US-Japan, and US-China relations.

Such is the sentiment expressed in the poll and on the conference floor; we may be undergoing a period when a phenomenal change is taking place in Japan's external relations. The direction has been made clear, like it or not, that an increasing number of Japanese believe that their country will become dependent more upon China and less upon the US. Also, the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the US is no longer beyond debate. As was expressed in the responses quoted above, US-Japan relations do carry weight, still, it is the China-Japan relationship that will gain importance in the future. Simply put, in the eyes of many, one belongs to the past, the other to the future.

Are these people not too optimistic in viewing the future course that China may take? They may be. A substantial number of people were found to be sceptical when asked if China will continue to prosper at the same pace as it has in the past. But one thing is clear. East Asia has transformed itself into an oval that has two centres, Japan and China. Alternatively, one could say that the region has found a new solar system emerging with China at the centre as the Sun. Reading between the lines of the responses, Japan appears to be on the brink of becoming first a weaker Sun, then just one of the planets circling around China. Already, other planets from Singapore to Mongolia are busy re-computing their orbits vis--vis Beijing.

(Translations of the poll responses are the writer's own, not representing the NPO's official views.)

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