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Most of the Southeast Asian intellectuals and lawmakers I met with recently while visiting the region made remarks critical of Japan’s regional strategies. Some said Japan was unenthusiastic about negotiations on economic cooperation with Southeast Asian countries and instead was giving priority to solving domestic agricultural problems and securing foreign labor for nursing. Others said that, diplomatically, Japan was falling far behind China, which, with its deployment of aggressive maneuvers, has emerged as a major international player.

To be sure, Japan’s diplomacy in Asia leaves much to be desired. Concern is growing that with China continuing its fast economic expansion, Japan could become a minor international player caught in a niche between the United States and China.

By no means has Japan neglected efforts to promote economic cooperation with other Asian countries. Starting with Singapore, it has been promoting economic cooperation with other Asian countries through bilateral negotiations on economic agreements.

Although the pace is slow, Japan has been expanding cooperation steadily with other Asian countries. Yet, amid such efforts, why do Southeast Asian countries regard Japan as apathetic toward regional cooperation?

Perhaps Japan’s reluctance to liberalize farm trade and introduce foreign labor for domestic reasons gives the impression to negotiating partners that it is unwilling to open its market — in stark contrast to China, which is pushing a diplomatic offensive in Asia through quick decision-making under the single-party rule of the Communists. A more serious problem is that Japan has not clarified its regional vision.

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has proposed a framework for wide-area economic cooperation in East Asia that will embrace the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The idea is to establish a framework for wide-area economic cooperation beyond a series of bilateral talks on economic partnership.

This reminds me of a proposal China made at the East Asia Summit for a community consisting of ASEAN, Japan, China and South Korea. In the summit, Japan insisted that Australia, New Zealand, India also be invited to join.

By proposing that the three democratic nations participate, Japanese officials might have been trying to counter Chinese influence in an East Asian community. METI’s latest proposal for wide-area economic cooperation is interesting when viewed against the background of past proposals.

Japan need not seek confrontation with China, but it should not shy away from an eagerness to compete with China in presenting a concept for economic cooperation in East Asia. It should present its future vision to Asia and Pacific countries and conduct international negotiations on the basis of such a vision. By clarifying its position in the region that way, Japan’s position and direction will emerge.

Moves for economic cooperation in Asia started in full swing at the beginning of this century. But in a short period of time, a complicated network of bilateral economic cooperation pacts was formed.

Similar moves are likely to continue. However, as a network of bilateral tie-ups becomes more complicated, the “spaghetti-ball effect” — where everything is connected to everything else — arises. For example, country-of-origin labeling under economic cooperation pacts becomes more complicated and so does trade within the region.

Not a few people must believe that in order to promote expansion of trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region, it is necessary to consider a framework for economic cooperation from a wider perspective. The question for Japan is what position it should take in this regard.

Some experts are wary of a wide-area economic cooperation scheme. Not only are the people connected with agriculture concerned about the serious impact of farm trade liberalization but also many others who doubt that a wide-area economic partnership is feasible.

For instance, Japan-South Korea negotiations on economic partnership remain suspended with no prospect for resuming talks. Skeptics say that since some bilateral negotiations are stalled, there is no use considering a vision for wide-area cooperation. But if Japan remains unresponsive and continues to take such a stance, its presence in East Asia is bound to weaken.

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