Despite already close economic ties, a strong political will is crucial for East Asian nations to create a regional community, according to a consensus at a recent symposium in Tokyo.

Experts at the symposium also agreed that a broader-based and more public-level trust between Japan and China — where political ties are often complicated by bitter wartime memories — is essential to the regional community building efforts.

Scholars from Japan, China and Thailand took part in the Sept. 28 symposium sponsored by the Keizai Koho Center.

The topic of discussion at the meet was “How to Build an East Asian Community,” but Takashi Shiraishi, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, argued that such a theme gave the false impression that East Asian countries have already reached a consensus on building a regional community.

“At this moment, nobody knows — and there is no consensus — what is going to be created under the name ‘East Asian community,’ ” Shiraishi told the audience.

What is certain, he said, is that East Asia has no intention of creating a union modeled after the European Union.

But Shiraishi did believe countries in the region “have the political will to pursue various forms of regional cooperation under the name ‘East Asian community.’ ” Such a communal will was evidenced recently, he said, when all leaders made the effort to attend the East Asian Summit in January on Cebu Island in the Philippines after weather forced the summit to be bumped from its original November slot. “They all came to the January summit because they realize the importance of regional cooperation,” Shiraishi said.

East Asian economies achieved a high degree of market-based “de facto” integration after the 1980s, but the 1997 financial crisis exposed the problems shared by the countries in the region, raising the need for institutional frameworks for cooperation, he said.

Under the ASEAN plus three framework (Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan, China and South Korea), the past decade has seen increased cooperation among the region’s countries, particularly in regards to financial and currency stability, Shiraishi added.

In addition, East Asian countries are now fully aware that economic growth cannot be maintained without regional integration, he pointed out.

For example, Indonesia, with a population of 220 million, needs to achieve an annual growth of at least 6-7 percent if it is to provide jobs to 2.5 million youths entering the labor market each year, he said. “To achieve such high growth, policies geared to regional integration must be pursued,” he added.

Qin Yaqing, vice president of the China Foreign Affairs University, pointed out that discussions on East Asian regionalism have come a long way. He cited the 2004 agreement among the ASEAN, Japan, China and South Korea seeking East Asian community building as a long-term goal and the inauguration in 2005 of the annual East Asia Summit, which also included Australia, New Zealand and India.

But Qin also said the East Asia regional process “has come to a crossroads” — particularly after the launch of the East Asia Summit. Some of the consensus formed after the 1997 crisis has eroded and disagreements between countries have surfaced, he added.

The 1997 consensus was possible because of the financial crisis, Qin claimed. “All nations realized all of a sudden that we should cooperate.”

Some of the current differences concern the scope of the term “East Asia” and whether it should be expanded to include India and the Oceanic countries. Some countries call for their inclusion partly to balance China’s growing power in the region, Qin noted.

Qin also noted that the competition between Japan and China has become obvious in regional issues, which he charged “constituted the hurdle to regional cooperation.” The often troubled relationship between Tokyo and Beijing over the past decade “has been reflected in the regional cooperation process explicitly and implicitly,” he said.

Although a “benign” competition between the two countries can push the regional process forward, the tone of Japan-China competition has been one of conflict, with Japan often viewing China’s rise as a threat, he pointed out.

Qin also stressed that “political will” will be key to the success of the regional process in East Asia.

He described the current sentiments among East Asian countries concerning regional community building as a mix of “confidence and doubt.”

“We need to have a very strong belief in our regional cooperation . . . and a common political will to push it forward,” he said. Sufficient political will must be shared by the region’s major powers in order to work toward common interests, he added.

Tsuyoshi Ito, a professor of political science at Meiji University, agreed that managing relations with China will be crucial for Japan where it concerns regional community building. Along this line, Japan and China should find new areas of cooperation, he said.

The massive environmental challenges confronting China will provide opportunities where Japan provide technological help as well as join and monitor the Chinese efforts, for example, to deal with air pollution, he noted.

Both Ito and Qin said the two countries’ peoples, not just their leaders, need to build a broad-based trust with each other. Despite the countries’ geographical proximity, people-to-people exchange between them is still insufficient to nurture mutual trust, Qin noted.

Ito urged the two nations to diversify their channel of exchange in order to create a multidimensional relationship, such as the one Japan has established with the United States.

For example, the government-to-government flow of economic aid should be changed so that grant aid, research funds and other resources from Japan would be distributed not only through official channels but also through nongovernmental groups. Also, funds should go to a variety of recipients in China, not just Beijing, he urged.