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One of the first tasks the new administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needs to address is to mend bilateral fences with China and South Korea, which have been strained primarily as a result of his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Abe should seize the opportunity to hold bilateral talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Hanoi in November. Participation in that APEC summit will see Abe’s debut on the international stage, and I hope he will meet as many leaders as possible, and develop good personal relationships. A multilateral international conference like that of APEC will provide leaders with a valuable opportunity to relatively easily get acquainted.

Japan’s diplomacy has been conducted since the 1950s on the basis of three pillars: the Japan-U.S. alliance, a United Nations-centered foreign policy, and friendly ties with other Asian countries.

I am happy to see that Japan’s alliance with the United States remains as steadfast as ever. Japan’s bid for U.N. Security Council permanent membership, which is supported by a majority of the Japanese people, is a significant factor in its efforts to contribute to reforming the U.N. to make it a more effective international organization. The three pillars, on the whole, have served their purpose well enough, albeit not totally satisfactorily, particularly with regard to recent Asian diplomacy and the function of the U.N.

I have a high opinion of the close personal relationship Koizumi has established with U.S. President George W. Bush, as it has certainly helped Japan strengthen its ties and alliance with the superpower. But what is more important is to build sustainable nation-to-nation bonds of friendship beyond the close personal friendship between leaders.

Although repairing Japan’s relations with China and South Korea is earnestly sought, it is advisable to do so in the multilateral frameworks of Asia, where the tendency toward closer regional cooperation is gathering momentum.

Asian countries, looking at the historical development of the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement, have increasingly been conscious of the necessity to promote regional cooperation, and even regional integration, as a long-term target to ensure the peace and prosperity of the region.

It is noticeable that China, which showed little interest in multilateral regional affairs until the late 1980s, reoriented its stance in 1993, when President Jiang Zemin attended the APEC summit for the first time as Chinese leader. And in 1994, China attended an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting for the first time, changing its earlier negative attitude toward that regional security body.

When the Asian currency crisis occurred in 1997, there was widespread discontent among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over responses by the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund, consequently making them realize that intraregional cooperation is essential to solving issues in the region. After the crisis, Japan proposed the idea of creating an Asian Monetary Fund, but it was nipped in the bud by the U.S. and the IMF.

The currency crisis led to the creation of the framework of ASEAN-plus-three (Japan, China and South Korea), within which the Asian members are to cooperate in addressing common issues. In the financial field, for instance, swap agreements known as the Chiang Mai Initiative, were concluded at Japan’s initiative. China has actively been calling on ASEAN countries since around 2001 to conclude free trade agreements, with the ASEAN-plus-three framework gradually assuming greater significance.

Under such circumstances, the first East Asian Summit (EAS) was held in Kuala Lumpur last December, with the ASEAN-plus-three members and three additional countries — India, Australia and New Zealand — participating.

Members of the EAS envision it as a steppingstone to an “East Asian Community” modeled on the EU. Malaysia took the initiative in holding the EAS while Japan, in cooperation with Indonesia, worked to open the way for India, Australia and New Zealand to take part.

It has long been thought that Asia is so diverse and divided in terms of history, culture, language and religion that regional integration may be impossible. Yet, the wave of regional integration in Europe and America has prodded Asia to take action so as not to be left further behind in building a regional cooperative scheme open to the outside as well.

China has been responding to the momentum by promoting free trade agreements with ASEAN countries while Japan has been advancing the policy of concluding economic partnership agreements. Regardless of which way is taken in the future, the grand target of creating an East Asian Community has been envisaged. As an initial step toward that long-range target, there has arisen a mounting movement toward nurturing an East Asian Economic Community through step by step efforts of building blocs of practical cooperation in functional matters.

In the meantime, India has appeared on the stage as a new player, becoming a member of the ASEAN-plus-six. As a rising power in Asia, following the similar path of China, India is regarded as a strategic partner by the U.S. On the other hand, China has been courting India to make the relationship between the two countries closer politically as well as economically. It is becoming clear that India will play an interesting role in the regional cooperation movement in Asia.

However, the hardest nut to crack, which is bound to emerge in the process, is what to do institutionally with the U.S., which cannot be associated with Asian regional integration due to its geography, but without which Asian issues cannot be considered in a proper perspective.

The U.S., in retrospect, killed a proposed East Asia Economic Caucus and an Asian Monetary Fund, but it has been cautious about taking any definite stance toward the EAS and the movement toward forming an East Asian Community. It is unlikely that the U.S. will continue to just watch where Asia is heading without offering some policy direction. The country, whose strategically structured engagements remain crucial to Asia’s peace and stability, naturally would not like to see the ASEAN-plus-three or any other similar institution be dominated by China and be inclined to become anti-American.

The alliance between Japan and the U.S. will continue to be the core factor in coping with the evolving Asian situation. At the same time, Japan should more positively be engaged in the growing momentum toward the eventual formation of an East Asian Community, even as a long-term objective.

Integrating security and foreign policy matters is the hardest thing to achieve, as seen in the case of the EU with a half-century history. It is advisable to begin by addressing easier tasks, namely, functional matters such as finances, economic affairs, energy, environment, infectious diseases and so on. Creating venues for talks on these functional matters could pave the way to laying the foundations for an economic community. After the formation of an Asian Economic Community, it may take many more years to form a full-fledged East Asian Community, but it is worth embarking down that road and learning along the way.

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