CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Some cliches keep resurfacing in strategic jargon: Japan and the United States share the most important bilateral relationship in the world; stability in Asia-Pacific; harmony in the triangular interactions among Japan, China and the U.S. But these concepts are facing challenges.
It was only a few months ago that the new president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, articulated an interesting concept concerning the strategic landscape of Asia. He proposed that a subtle connection be made between regional organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation the major countries of Northeast Asia. More specifically, he suggested that his country play an intermediary role to lessen antagonisms among China, Japan and India. Wahid’s ideas might have carried more weight were it not for subsequent pessimism stemming from the apparent weakness of his regime.
More recently, observers have taken note of some positive trends in the relationship between Japan and India, which had been rather dormant in the past. In a recent article in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Tomoda Seki, a Japanese academic, described a series of official visits and exchanges between Tokyo and New Delhi. Writing with approval of this emerging “strategic partnership,” he cites three reasons that necessitate such a development from Tokyo’s perspective: greater petroleum security, international politics and trade.
Going one step further, the writer writes that the two countries share an unspoken desire to “contain any future Chinese adventurism.”
These sentiments may reflect the strategic thinking of some quarters but it is doubtful that such a strategic partnership would bring greater stability and prosperity to Asia. Moreover, such a relationship does not appear to have the endorsement of other Asian nations.
Apprehensions linger in Southeast Asia, and possibly South Asia as well, that Japan could remilitarize and China may engage in muscle flexing beyond its borders.
But the general feeling is one of expectation of further reconciliation and improvement in the climate between the two giants of East Asia. “East Asian economic well-being depends on both China and Japan playing their parts,” said the Thai newspaper The Nation in a recent editorial. Hong Kong economist Andy Xie says the core issue for any meaningful regional framework is how Japan and China can work together. In a broader context, any reappearance of the term “containment” with regard to China is almost certain to backfire. Well-known commentator Frank Ching, writing in the context of the recent U.S. congressional vote on China and the World Trade Organization, argued that “confrontation” and “containment” would “turn China into an adversary.” The Clinton administration shares this sentiment.
The road toward stability in Asia and, consequently, in the world, perhaps resembles Matsuo Basho’s “oku no hoso michi,” a “narrow” but ultimately unavoidable path. We must work to slowly but steadily remove mistrust between China and Japan.
This may sound overly idealistic, given both countries’ desire to assume a leadership role in Asia. But neither Japan nor China can ultimately prevail alone, while both stand to gain immense prestige and authority if they can share their talent, dynamism and potential. Asia as a whole can build and prosper on a solid foundation of trust and cooperation between these two giants.
Ideally, such an Asian partnership would include India, with a population that represents one-sixth of the planet, as well as the continued multidimensional involvement of the U.S.
Indian President K.R. Narayanan’s official visit to China is a positive development. The experience he gained as an envoy to Beijing during delicate negotiations a quarter century ago will serve him well in his effort to build bridges of understanding between New Delhi and Beijing.
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