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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Rethinking ties with ASEAN


Japan-ASEAN relations, which have traditionally been underpinned by trade, tourism, investment and official development assistance (ODA), appear to have reached a turning point. This is because most, if not all, 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have become economically mature and have consequently emerged as important partners for Japan, rather than as recipients of Japanese goods, money and technology.

Indeed, ASEAN's exports to Japan have increased steadily over the past decade, while Japan's exports to ASEAN countries have remained more or less stagnant. ASEAN's share of Japan's total ODA also seems to be declining rather than increasing. And the broadly flat trend of Japanese investment in the ASEAN region in recent years contrasts starkly with the rapid pace of investment in China.

Bearing this situation in mind, we should reorient Japan's public diplomacy toward ASEAN and our policies on cultural and intellectual exchanges with the region, which have traditionally been based on the assumption that Japan's policies should be geared to correcting the image of Japan as simply an economic giant.

How should Japan's policies be reoriented? First, it is important that both Japan and ASEAN affirm clearly their commitment to address common global issues. Japan and ASEAN must further strengthen their resolve to work together in tackling global challenges such as infectious diseases, terrorism, potential energy and water shortages, and global environmental degradation. To this end, Japan should encourage ASEAN countries to shoulder more international responsibilities in tackling these global issues.

Second, it is important for Japan and ASEAN countries to disseminate "Asian values" to the world. On the present world stage, where conflict between the Western causes and the Middle Eastern values is a frequent cause of tension and bloodshed, there is a need for the social tolerance practiced in many ASEAN countries during modernization to be shared by the peoples of other regions. The spirit of symbiosis between nature and humankind that has characterized many Asian communities should be conveyed more vocally to the rest of the world.

Japan could, for instance, form partnerships with ASEAN countries in organizing international symposiums for comparative studies on the perceptions of nature in different civilizations.

The third task for Japan in the field of cultural exchange is to deepen and widen intellectual exchanges with ASEAN partners. In the current age, it would be highly meaningful for think tanks, academic associations and research institutes in Japan and ASEAN countries, as well as politicians and business people, to intensify their policy-oriented intellectual exchanges, particularly on such issues as China, American "unilateralism" and the roles of Asian Muslims in the world.

The fourth area where we must intensify our efforts is partnership among citizens. Amid globalization's inexorable advance, we are witnessing such problems as growing disparities and outdated decision-making processes in international institutions. To inject a sense of social justice into the international community, we must encourage more direct participation by citizens and citizens' groups as international political players.

In this regard, Japan could encourage the development of nongovernment and nonprofit organizations in the ASEAN region so that these citizens' groups can play an active role in tackling global issues that cut across national boundaries, particularly environmental and social problems.

Fifth, in the fields of fine arts and performing arts activities, we should encourage joint endeavors and joint productions between Japanese artists, musicians and actors, and their counterparts in ASEAN countries. The production of the play "Lear," in which actors, musicians and playwrights from Japan and six ASEAN countries participated, is an excellent example of such endeavors.

Finally, Japan and ASEAN countries could work together to use cultural exchanges as an effective tool for healing the traumatized minds of people, particularly women and children, in postconflict situations. Performances in Antabua, West Timor, and in Dili, East Timor, by Gekidan Kaze-no-Ko (Children of the Wind Theater), a Japanese theatrical troupe for children, could be viewed as a model for future activities in this area.

All these ideas and suggestions boil down to the basic principle of a Japanese public diplomacy toward ASEAN that can be characterized by the key word of multidimensional partnership.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).


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