BANGKOK, May 18 (Reporting ASEAN) – ASEAN finds itself caught in a huge dilemma in engaging the region’s two most powerful economic giants – China and Japan.
Both are the grouping’s most valuable dialogue partners, taking part in all spheres of bilateral relations. In the past, such engagements were deemed natural and worked in tandem with each other because China and Japan were the engines that drove the regional economy, promoting prosperity.
They are also members of the so-called ASEAN Plus Three, which includes South Korea.
Since its establishment in 1997, ASEAN Plus Three has initiated and carried out many programs, mainly in the promotion of trade and economic ties, coupled with financial cooperation. The ASEAN Plus Three framework has become a dynamic instrument for promoting cooperation and accelerating the economic integration of ASEAN and East Asia.
However, the souring of China-Japan ties in the past three and half years, apart from the renewed dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, have had a serious impact on overall relations with ASEAN. This may have implications on future economic integration between ASEAN and East Asia.
Beginning in 2008, ASEAN has served as a fulcrum for the three Asian economic powers – China, Japan and South Korea – to converse on political and security issues.
But as its relations with China deteriorated, Japan has increased its efforts to strengthen relations with ASEAN as a group and with individual member states. For the past 40 years, Japan has been an important partner in providing both financial and technical assistance or development programs to countries in Southeast Asia. Japan’s efforts from the 1970s to 1980s also helped unite the former Indochinese states with ASEAN. Tokyo’s active role in helping settle the Cambodian conflict and its post-war efforts to rehabilitate the war-torn country certainly helped these two blocs to integrate with each other.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has already transformed his country’s foreign-policy orientation from a one-dimensional focus on development issues into a multi-dimensional approach enriched with security and strategic matters.
The last two elements are new areas that have come to the fore in the wake of rising tensions between Tokyo and Beijing.
In the past two years, Japan has been moving swiftly to strengthen maritime security ties with Vietnam and the Philippines, two main claimants in the South China Sea disputes. The move has been viewed as an attempt to counter the rise of China’s maritime power and its presence in the troubled maritime areas. Other ASEAN countries have welcomed Japan’s proactive and pro-peace policies under Abe.
However, ASEAN also sees an urgent need to balance its overall ties with Japan and China.
In the past, ASEAN’s long-established close ties and friendship with Japan have never caused concern on China’s part. This sentiment, however, has now been turned upside down.
China has been trying to counter Japan’s new approach on security and strategic matters in Southeast Asia by offering – to ASEAN’s own surprise – to sign the Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendship with ASEAN. Under this treaty, both China and ASEAN would work closely to promote peace and prosperity, and to prevent conflict. However, ASEAN has yet to study and respond to the Chinese proposal.
In recent years, China has become the No 1 economic partner of ASEAN member states.
Two years ago, China also proposed the ‘One Belt, One Road Initiative’ to connect its major cities to other coastal cities across the Pacific Ocean through the Indian Ocean. This initiative would include strengthening infrastructure on the westward land route from China to Central Asia, toward the Middle East and Europe. This grand connectivity strategy by China is aimed at ASEAN, which came out with its masterplan for connectivity in 2010. For the time being, ASEAN and China have not yet met to discuss this initiative, even though the latter proposed a consultative dialogue at the director-general level in 2015.
Against the backdrop of major development and infrastructure programs under Japan’s and China’s tutelage, ASEAN has decided to adopt a cautious approach towards their proposals.
At present, ASEAN is working closely with both countries to complete the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is the ASEAN-led free trade agreement with other dialogue partners from South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia have already joined the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership. Thus, China and Japan have to display joint leadership in pushing for the early conclusion of RCEP by the end of this year or early next year.
Failure to do would not only cause further delay in the economic integration of ASEAN and the broader East Asia, but also worsen the rivalry between Japan and China. (END/Reporting ASEAN – Edited by Johanna Son)
(*Kavi Chongkittavorn is a columnist with ‘The Nation’ newspaper, and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.)