Despite Japan’s protracted economic slump, its neighbors are still looking to it for support and leadership.

This was the prominent view of participants at a recent international conference in Kuala Lumpur, according to Itochu Corp. Chairman Minoru Murofushi, who jointly chaired the talks with Carla Hills, a former U.S. Trade Representative, Tommy Koh, Singapore’s ambassador at large, and Nicholas Platt, the president of the Asia Society.

Most of the participants at the two-day 30th Williamsburg Conference, which began April 12, said Japan, whose economy represents up to 65 percent of the total gross domestic product in Asia, has a vital role to play in the region, Murofushi told The Japan Times.

According to Murofushi, many participants said Japan should clarify its strategy for Asia and were eager to learn if the nation’s economy is on track for recovery.

Some expressed optimism, pointing out that business confidence is on the rise, excess inventory has declined and exports to the U.S. are increasing.

The conference drew 60 business leaders, government officials and scholars from 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region to exchange views and opinions on a range of issues, including politics, security and economics.

The conference, first held in 1971 in Williamsburg, Va., provides a venue for academics and political and business leaders to exchange views behind closed doors, on condition that they will not be quoted by name. The conference was organized by the Asia Society and cohosted by the Asian Strategic and Leadership Institute.

Murofushi said most participants felt the reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. has resulted in an overall improvement in relations between the U.S. and Asia.

The U.S.-led war on terrorism also gave Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi an opportunity to demonstrate that Japan, after being criticized for only engaging in “checkbook diplomacy” during the Gulf War, can provide support beyond financial contributions.

After the Antiterrorism Measures Special Law of 2001 was quickly passed, Japan sent five Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in November to provide refueling assistance to U.S. and British warships stationed in the Indian Ocean.

Concerning foreign investment, some participants representing member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed concern their economies are being overshadowed by China’s rapid growth, he said.

However, most participants agreed that rather than concentrating on the competition created by China, ASEAN countries must first work on corporate governance to improve their own business environments so that the region will become more attractive to foreign businesses, according to Murofushi.

Participants also discussed Koizumi’s recent commitment to work more closely with ASEAN nations, and they said the free-trade agreement signed by Japan and Singapore in January could be adapted and implemented by other countries in the region.

There was strong support for the proposed ASEAN plus three — China, Japan and South Korea — regional body.

Murofushi said the discussions showed him that Japan needs to contribute to the prosperity of the region by swiftly implementing economic and political structural reforms.

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