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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (December 18, 2003)

More let-down from Japan

Brad Glosserman (Director of Research at Pacific Forum CSIS)

(This article originally appeared in the December 18, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)

It is hard to get excited about last week's Japan-Asean summit. The decision to create a new "special relationship" between the two could be historic, but the economic free-trade areas that would provide its foundation look like long shots. Japanese efforts are likely to be frustrated by the same political forces that have blocked previous initiatives. That is a pity, not only for Japan, but also for the Southeast Asian governments that seek a rejuvenated relationship with Tokyo.

The meeting marked the 30th anniversary of Japan's relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Japanese officials had promised a "historic" meeting, implying at least that there would be something more than the fact of the summit itself. They issued a declaration - the "Tokyo Declaration for the Dynamic and Enduring Japan-Asean Partnership in the New Millennium" - that calls for deepening ties and better co-operation in the fields of political and security affairs, monetary and financial policies, and information technology.

Japan will provide US$1.5 billion over the next three years to promote human resources development for more than 40,000 people; and another US$1.5 billion over three years for sub-regional development projects such as the Mekong River Basin and the East Asean Growth Area that takes in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Japan and Asean will co-operate to fight the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, piracy and transnational crimes; and they will undertake joint research to tackle emerging infectious diseases such as Sars.

The biggest developments are Tokyo's decision to join Asean's Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC) and the commitment to create a "comprehensive economic partnership" between Japan and Asean, which will include elements of a free-trade area, by 2012. Although the region-wide talks are not scheduled until 2005, the effort begins in earnest next year when Tokyo commences bilateral trade talks on free-trade agreements with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

It is difficult to be optimistic about their prospects. Japan's ability to negotiate free-trade agreements has been severely restrained by the power of the country's agricultural lobby, which has effectively blocked any deal that would liberalise farm imports.

The real tragedy is the wasted opportunity. Asean has warm feelings for Japan and looks for Tokyo to play a greater role in the region. Southeast Asia has a deep and abiding respect for Japan's accomplishments in the post-war era and greatly appreciates the assistance that Tokyo has provided in the past.

The problem for Japan is that its profile is shrinking. It is perceived as lacking confidence and being unable to take the initiative in dealing with the region. Tokyo is seen as invariably lagging behind China, and responding - unevenly - to Beijing's initiatives. This summit was seen as largely a response to China's offer last year to conclude an Asean-China strategic partnership that would include a free-trade agreement. The decision to join the TAC follows a similar decision by China and India at the Asean summit held in Bali in October. In our meetings throughout the region, China is invariably on the agenda - typically in the context of "the meaning and impact of China's rise".

Japan is rarely on the programme, and is infrequently mentioned in discussions. The fact is that ordinary Southeast Asians do not think about Japan much. That is not all bad, because it also means that the traditional obstacles to Japanese participation in regional affairs have diminished.

While China's rise is seen now as an opportunity rather than a threat, there is still some discomfort and much uncertainty about the implications of China's growing strength. Regional leaders see Tokyo as providing some balance - at a minimum, it offers them increased opportunities for bargaining with the two Asian powers.

Southeast Asians know that for all China's prospects, Japan will continue to be critical to the region's economic growth and development for some time to come. That is a critical consideration as the Asean-plus-three process matures and "East Asia" becomes better defined. But it will count for little if Japan cannot meet Southeast Asian expectations of concrete results from last week's summit. The past offers little grounds for optimism.

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