BEIJING — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s proposal to create an “East Asian community” along the lines of the European Union has effectively sparked a leadership race between Japan and China in shaping the future of one of the most quickly developing regions in the world.
The East Asian community plan has drawn attention since Hatoyama floated it in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in New York on Sept. 21, only five days after taking office and launching his Democratic Party of Japan-led government.
The plan is expected to be high on the agenda when Hatoyama meets Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for a trilateral summit next Saturday in Beijing.
It is also likely to be a major topic of focus when leaders of the three countries, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Australia, India and New Zealand hold a regional summit later this month in Thailand.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, agreed during talks Monday in Shanghai that the two will work together toward creating an East Asian community to bring about closer regional cooperation.
Yang cited finance, energy and the environment as key areas for cooperation. Okada said policy coordination should start from such areas as antiinfluenza measures, public health, energy and the environment before gradually shifting to political fields, a process similar to the one the 27-nation European Union has undergone.
But the ministers stopped short of discussing sensitive issues, including which countries should be included in the regional grouping.
Hatoyama has yet to unveil details, including membership and areas of cooperation, in his proposal.
Unlike many of his predecessors, who primarily sought to strengthen Japan’s alliance with the United States, Hatoyama stresses forging a closer relationship with other Asian economies.
While welcoming Hatoyama’s diplomatic stance, Tokyo’s pursuit of an East Asian community has apparently put Beijing on alert. Unlike Japan, China was among the first batch of countries to advocate and support the building of an East Asian community, Chinese experts say.
“Japan was not interested in the plan at first, but after the global financial crisis it realized that the impetus of its economy lies with China and some newly emerging countries in the region,” Zhou Yongsheng, an expert in Japanese studies at China Foreign Affairs University, was quoted as saying in the Tuesday issue of China Daily.
Wu Huaizhong, a researcher at the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in the Sunday issue of the Global Times that Japan is striving to establish a “Japan-led order in Asia” driven by a sense of rivalry with China.
Zhou said there is a “conceptual gap” between Japan and China in terms of establishing a membership club in East Asia. Beijing envisages a grouping of 13 nations — Japan, China and South Korea, plus the ASEAN members of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
In contrast, Okada has said that an East Asian community should involve “India and Australia,” suggesting that Japan envisions a 16-nation community involving the ASEAN states, Japan, China and South Korea, plus Australia, India and New Zealand.
Okada said that Japan is not considering the idea of including the United States in the group. But given its alliance with Washington, Japan can serve as a “connector” between the U.S. and the envisaged 16-member community, he said.
Zhou said China does not mean to exclude countries other than the 13 it envisions. “The top priority of the plan is to develop local economies. Dragging too many countries into it is not practical in the first phase,” Zhou was quoted as saying.
A senior Japanese diplomat said it would be in Japan’s interest to include India in the group as a counterbalance to China, which is expected to overtake Japan as the world’s second-largest economy later this year or next year.
Wu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said it is important for Japan to drop the “zero sum” idea of who will lead the group, stressing that the creation of an East Asian community will not succeed unless Asia’s two economic giants cooperate.