SINGAPORE — Earlier this month a closed-door workshop and open public symposium focused on bridging the divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and those between Japan and Okinawa as well as on strengthening the ASEAN-Japan partnership through governance, human security and community-building.

As the first activity under the aegis of the ASEAN-Japan Exchange Year 2003, it brought together representatives of Japanese think tanks and the 10-member ASEAN (comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar).

Held in Okinawa, the Japan-ASEAN Workshop and Symposium was co-organized by the Japan Institute of International Affairs, or JIIA, the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Okinawa Peace Assistance Center. JIIA President Hisahi Owada chaired the event just before assuming his post as a judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Younger scholars from ASEAN countries gave their input and ideas on how to revitalize important geostrategic, economic, social and cultural ties. The need for an effective community-building exercise between Japan and ASEAN, and its eventual extension to South Korea and China within the “ASEAN plus 3” framework, was also discussed.

Owada underscored the significance of the event being held in Okinawa:

* Okinawa is considered a gateway to Southeast Asia, given its profound historical links (through the Great Era of Trade during the 14th through 19th centuries) and its cultural affinities with China and Southeast Asian countries.

* The “divide” that exists between Okinawa and mainland Japan is similar to the “ASEAN divide.”

The ASEAN divide is multidimensional and multifaceted among the 10 ASEAN nations. It includes the divide between “newer” and “older” members (which has given rise to the notion of a “two-tier ASEAN”). The divide over ideology is being smoothed out thanks to the political, economic and social transition of Indochinese countries. Disparities also exist over historical views, economics, social conditions, security concerns, culture and mind-set.

To bridge this ASEAN divide, member countries have envisaged a program of economic and social rapprochement in the Initiative for ASEAN Integration, formally adopted at the Singapore Summit of November 2000. Bridging this divide is of crucial importance if ASEAN is to formally adopt the proposal of Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to create by 2020 an ASEAN Economic Community. This is scheduled for discussion at a summit in Bali next November.

To a certain extent, the “Japan divide” or, more precisely, the “Japan-Okinawa” divide, can be compared to the ASEAN divide. A psychological divide still exists between Okinawans and Japanese mainlanders. The deaths of great numbers of Okinawans during the battle between Americans and Japanese in World War II have left a sense of guilt and retribution both ways.

This historical divide is complicated by at least two other Okinawan grievances toward Japanese mainlanders: First, Okinawa has only about 70 percent of mainland Japan’s average gross domestic product; hence an income divide. Second, Okinawa hosts 75 percent of Japan’s American bases, an issue that remains a thorn in the flesh of Okinawans.

Okinawans are caught in a bind. They would prefer getting the U.S. bases out of their islands, yet stand to lose financially and economically from their departure. At a time of profound uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula, it is unlikely that the United States or Japan will remove these crucial bases in the foreseeable future. Tokyo’s financial contributions and subsidies to Okinawa are thus expected to continue.

Both Okinawa/Japan and ASEAN (as an organization) face major challenges in bridging their internal divides. If unbridged, there is the risk of increased insecurity and instability, as socioeconomic disparities compound historical and psychological divisions that could fracture both entities. Community-building becomes an important facet of not only bridging these two divides but also strengthening ASEAN-Japan relations in this new century.

Economic cooperation between Japan and ASEAN, perhaps via the pivotal location of Okinawa, should be seriously explored. In addition, there is a need to encourage more people-to-people relations between Okinawa and the ASEAN countries. Community-building between Okinawa and ASEAN could be further promoted, as the Japanese Government seeks to use Okinawa as a venue in its human-resource development and technology-promotion programs with ASEAN.

Given Okinawa’s lack of agricultural and industrial competitiveness in terms of cost and technology vis-a-vis ASEAN, trade between ASEAN and Okinawa is limited, although agricultural or biomarine technology could be transferred to ASEAN by Okinawa nonprofit organizations with Tokyo’s financial support.

The workshop and symposium was a followup to the ASEAN-Japan Vision 2020 document put together by the Eminent Persons Group from ASEAN and Japan at the initiative of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 2000.

The idea of using Okinawa to bridge the divides and strengthen ASEAN-Japan relations is a good one; it now depends on Tokyo to draw up a strategic plan, in collaboration with ASEAN governments, and implement it. Community-building — from ASEAN to Japan through Okinawa — is a new means of revitalizing ASEAN-Japan ties.

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