SINGAPORE — Southeast Asian countries view the recent Sino-Japanese and South Korean-Japanese feuds with interest and deep concern for possible impli- cations in four areas:
First, with the scars of World War II and prewar colonialism exposed in China and South Korea, memories of Japan’s attempts to create a “sphere of prosperity” — from Korea to Indonesia in the 1940s — appear to be returning amid Tokyo’s bid to secure a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council.
Specifically, the crisis over Chinese and South Korean protests against new Japanese history textbooks — which, critics say, whitewash or ignore Japanese atrocities — is awakening long-dormant memories in Southeast Asians.
The 3 1/2 years of Japanese occupation were harsh in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and in the areas now known as Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. These nations make up practically all of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Many Southeast Asians still hope for an outright apology from Tokyo that will put the war behind them once and for all.
Second, Southeast Asian countries fear the prospect of regional instability as a result of the feuding. Besides the textbook issue, there are disputes between Beijing and Tokyo over the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japanese) islets and between Seoul and Tokyo over the Tok-do (Takeshima in Japanese) islets.
Although military conflict does not appear on the horizon, with peace-mending efforts being undertaken by Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura in Beijing, there still exists the possibility of “accidents” occurring in the East China Sea or the Sea of Japan, where the disputed islets and natural gas test-drill fields are located.
Efforts must be made on all sides to minimize current tension. If an “accident” is allowed to happen, governments might lose control of the situation. Instability in Northeast Asia could adversely affect the trade and investment climate in Southeast Asia. Economic growth in the region is already slowing due to high oil prices, a more depressed consumption mood, and rising inflation and interest rates. Southeast Asians’ need for regional stability is greater today than at any time in the past two years.
Third, Southeast Asian nations fear a split within the budding East Asian Community. They wonder how the growing tension and political division in Northeast Asia will affect community-building and the scheduled launch of the East Asian Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur next December. The dream of building East Asia to counterbalance a unified Europe and the potential free-trade area of the Americas appears to have been put on the back burner, although the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat at Cebu, Philippines, underscored ASEAN’s hopes to build a free-trade area comprising ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea and India.
The recent China-India Summit in New Delhi augurs well for India’s inclusion in the future East Asian Community. The EAS is aimed at stabilizing the region, and it is hoped that Japan will overcome its domestic pressures to join this budding community in December, as East Asia without Asia’s premier economy would not make much logical sense.
Last, Northeast Asia may be heading toward a strategic schism if a “commonality of causes” between Beijing and Seoul ends up uniting them in opposition to Tokyo. Meanwhile, Tokyo is moving closer to Washington (as evidenced by the Feb. 19 U.S.-Japan Joint Security Agreement). This shift in alignment could eventually pit China and the two Koreas against a Washington-Tokyo axis in the Asia-Pacific, which could in turn split the rest of East Asia in terms of security and politics.
At stake is East Asia’s future relationship with Washington amid the rise of Asian giants China and India, and the U.S. commitment in the region.
The EAS was supposed to build regional confidence and establish appropriate institutions to stabilize East Asia. Any strategic schism in the Asia-Pacific would clearly hurt the drive toward regionalism as well as the aspirations of the East Asian Community and its people.
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