Sino-Japanese strains bode ill for EAS

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The inaugural meeting of the East Asia Summit (EAS) — including all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus six other countries in the region — went off without a hitch, except for the rather serious fact that China and Japan were not talking to each other.

In fact, one of the bigger stories to emerge from Kuala Lumpur, where the heads of the 16 countries met, was an incident in which Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi needed a pen to sign the declaration of the East Asian Summit and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao handed him one. That was one of the few fleeting moments of contact between the Chinese and Japanese leaders.

Even the host, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia, said in a statement: “We are concerned about the developing dichotomy in Japan-China relations, which we consider as one of the main pillars of East Asia cooperation. We believe that it is important for both countries to manage their relations well.”

The holding of the first EAS was an event that had been awaited with great anticipation for years, but the strained relationship between two of its most important members does not bode well for the organization.

Originally the expectation was that it would be a meeting of ASEAN plus the three powerhouses of northeast Asia — China, Japan and South Korea. However, Australia, New Zealand and India did not want to be left out and, ultimately, all three became founding members of the new organization. Russia, which attended as an observer, has made it clear that it wants to be a full-fledged member at the next meeting.

In their declaration, the 16 countries announced they had established the East Asia Summit “as a forum for dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest and concern” with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia.

In the long term, the countries involved aim to “promote community building” in the region in a wake that is consistent with realization of “the ASEAN community.” Presumably, this means that an East Asia community is a more distant goal than the establishment of an ASEAN community.

The discord between Japan on one hand and China and South Korea on the other was evident in Kuala Lumpur. For the last six years, the three countries have held meetings each year on the margins when they met with the leaders of ASEAN. This year, however, China canceled the tripartite meetings.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing made it obvious that the reason was Koizumi’s visit on Oct. 17 to Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are honored along with 2.5 million war dead.

“The leader of a certain country is still worshipping war criminals,” the foreign minister said. “Surely this is wrong. For an important leader of an important country to be so arrogantly and blatantly hurting the feelings of the people of other Asian countries, what sort of behavior is this?”

South Korea, too, canceled several scheduled meetings with Japan in protest after the Koizumi visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in October.

Koizumi has visited the shrine every year since he became prime minister in 2001. After his last visit, he justified his action by saying, “It must not be forgotten that today’s peace is built on the sacrifices made by those who died in war.”

This is a little difficult to understand since Japan was the aggressor rather than the victim during World War II. Given that Japan colonized Korea, invaded China and occupied much of Southeast Asia, not to say attacked Pearl Harbor, Koizumi seemed to be saying that Japan’s current peace and prosperity was only possible because of these aggressive actions.

Isolated in Asia, Japan has sought closer relations with the United States. Koizumi has said he was convinced that, the stronger the Japan-U.S. alliance, “the easier it will be to develop better relations with China and Korea.”

Despite the strained political relationship, economic relations remain strong. Last year, Sino-Japanese trade China reached $168 billion, making China the biggest trading partner of Japan, replacing the United States.

Meanwhile, trying to make the best of a bad situation, Koizumi insists that bilateral relations with China and South Korea are excellent. He reportedly told Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, that “the fact that relations are good even without leaders meeting shows just how strong Japan’s relations are with both countries.”

However, it is dangerous to keep the Sino-Japanese relationship on autopilot for a prolonged period. Hopefully, the Yasukuni issue will be resolved or else the future of East Asia may well be at risk.