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SINGAPORE — As Japan becomes mired in its own political, economic and financial problems and grapples with serious geostrategic concerns on the Korean Peninsula, there is great temptation for it to look inward. Such a shift, however, is to the detriment of the region, which is experiencing one of its greatest periods of transformation.

To its Asian neighbors, Tokyo seems consumed by its own political and economic uncertainties. The net result is a slowing down of Japanese foreign policy initiatives — and visits by Japanese political and business leaders — and a weakening of Japanese trade and investment in Southeast and Northeast Asia.

It has become customary for some observers to speak of Japan as “the sick man of Asia,” although its foreign reserves stand at $430 billion and its foreign direct investment flows to the East Asian region remain formidable.

Looking to East Asia, there are two important duties and commitments it is hoped Japan can undertake, not only for the benefit of the region as a whole but also for its own future.

First, Japan should try to understand the present extent of disarray in Southeast Asia. The Oct. 12 Bali bombing was indeed the “9/11 of Southeast Asia.” As shown by the Bali tragedy, the deadly Zamboanga explosions in the southern Philippines and the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg, international terrorism, supported by domestic terrorist groups, has arrived on the shores of Southeast Asia. The region is indeed at a crucial turning point.

The Bali, Zamboanga and Limburg incidents should have driven home the fundamental message of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’s extreme vulnerabilities to both Southeast Asians as well as to their major partners in America, Europe, Japan and China. Terrorism is engulfing Southeast Asian countries in a cycle of violence as the region is being forcibly “plugged” into the international terror network.

Equally important, the region’s “Muslim problems” have been conspicuously highlighted; in fact, about 250 million Muslims live in Southeast Asia — almost twice the population of Japan.

The recent terrorist attacks threaten ASEAN’s economic lifeline in two ways. First, such incidents could isolate the region from the international economic mainstream at a time when it has still not fully recovered from the devastating effects of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. This is particularly worrisome for ASEAN in terms of foreign direct investment flows, especially at a time when China is eclipsing ASEAN as the major recipient of FDI. ASEAN, which greatly depends on exports of both commodities and manufactured goods to the West and Northeast Asia, fears further marginalization in world trade if regional security continues to decline.

Second, ASEAN has depended on Western and Japanese expertise and knowhow to improve its human resources. Any shunning of ASEAN by the West in terms of technology transfers or assistance would serve as a tremendous blow to the development of the region.

ASEAN sees trade, investment and human resource development as crucial to its economic survival and development. Terrorism is attempting to choke off this lifeline. ASEAN needs security to develop economically and economic development to maintain stability. The nexus of economic development and security-cum-stability is critical for the survival of the 10 ASEAN members, as well as for ASEAN as a developing regional entity.

It is this vital nexus that international terror seeks to destroy, by trying to plunge the region into instability as well as by radicalizing the majority of moderate Muslim communities in Southeast Asia.

Just as the United States and other Western nations must take care not to further polarize these Muslim populations, either through their Middle East policies or a potential strike on Iraq, Japan must also do its part to further and consolidate the economic development of ASEAN for the sake of regional stability.

Japan should make greater efforts to engage Southeast Asia through private-sector activity that will boost the region’s economic development and by helping to strengthen ASEAN’s collective security in its efforts to fight international terror.

Second, it is imperative that Japan engage itself more fully in collective efforts to strengthen East Asian regionalism. East Asian regionalism will be spurred on in coming years by the upcoming expansion of the European Union and the potential success of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, as championed by Washington, by 2005.

Sentiment in support of some form of regionalism in East Asia is growing, although regional economic integration still appears a far-off dream. It is instructive, however, that this trend currently appears to be weakest in Japan.

Economic cooperation in East Asia will be enhanced by a growing web of free trade areas, or FTAs, as Japan negotiates such agreements with South Korea and ASEAN in coming years. Together with China and South Korea, Japan can play a role in Southeast Asian socioeconomic development that will combat terrorism and enhance human security.

East Asia also seems to be embracing political transition to a more stable democratic political model with a growing civil society. Such developments herald a new phase in East Asian regionalism, as the 13 countries involved develop mutual links across the region and cooperate more extensively. It is thus hoped that Japan will commit itself more fully to the nascent but growing “ASEAN plus three” process, instead of continuing its traditional straddling of the East and West.

In fact, Japan could make use of East Asian regionalism to more effectively engage the rising Chinese dragon by anchoring it to this region, turning China into an enormous economic opportunity for Japanese enterprises and economy, and thus rationalizing China’s rise within the regional context and framework to Japan’s own economic and political advantages.

Japanese coleadership with China is vital if East Asian regionalism is to eventually succeed and a “common East Asian house,” comprising South Korea (and even North Korea, when ready) and ASEAN, is to be realized. Therefore vision and leadership are critically needed from Tokyo as well as from Beijing.

In the view of ASEAN and East Asia, Japan’s duties and commitments would encompass both Southeast Asia, which is at a crucial crossroads in its own development, and the growing trend toward East Asian regionalism. Japan’s role in these areas is key to both the region’s development and its own prosperity.

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