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Friday, Oct. 30, 2009

Significance of East Asia

There have been renewed debates over the pros and cons of forming an East Asia community ever since the Hatoyama Cabinet advocated its promotion. Such debates have triggered the argument in the United States (and among some Japanese journalists) that East Asia community building runs counter to U.S. interests and that it is intolerable to see Asians considering their relations among each other in a form that excludes the U.S.

Related to this argument, the opinion is voiced that an East Asia community may cause friction in Japan-U.S. relations.

However, a deeper look at the idea of an East Asia community shows that it would be meaningful in several ways for Japan and its neighbors and that many of the community's aspects have direct or indirect benefits for the U.S.

First, there is an economic benefit. The degree of mutual dependence in trade relations among East Asian countries (Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has already exceeded the level analogous to trade dependence within the European community in the 1970s, and it is above the current degree of interdependence among members of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In terms of trade, therefore, it can be said that an East Asia community already exists. The U.S. and Europe have indeed benefited significantly from the expansion of trade in East Asia. And an attempt to institutionalize the growing interdependence among Asian countries will benefit not only Asian nations but others as well. In other words, moves to create a stable system for a growing East Asian economic sphere would generate financial as well as other indirect benefits for countries outside the region.

In particular, a unified East Asia would increase efficiency in investment in this area by Americans and Europeans, as more unified rules and procedures in the region could reduce various risks. Also, steps toward integration would enable Chinese and other Asian markets to become more open to foreign investments.

Then there is the political effect. An East Asia community would create opportunities for democratic countries, such as Japan and South Korea, to urge China's more active participation in international politics so that it gradually shares the values of free nations.

One central role of an East Asia community would be to act as a catalyst for China's shift from the somewhat self-righteous politics of a great power to that of a responsible partner in the international community. It would also help other Asian people with a history of nationalistic tendencies — such as the Japanese and Koreans — to reject narrow- minded attitudes and to develop a more regional and global outlook.

There would also be regional security implications in the formation of an East Asia community. The Far East continues to have security problems: tension on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait, among others. In this context, it is vital for Japan, China and South Korea to maintain a common stance and to share a common concern for security in the East Asian region.

This does not and should not contradict the ultimate goal of U.S. diplomacy in Asia to reduce tensions among Asian nations. In other words, one of the major American diplomatic positions in the 21st century should, instead of just emphasizing the importance of the American "presence" or "participation," nurture further the concept of partnership with Asia. The vital part of this is for the U.S. to encourage rather than discourage the fostering of the Asian community, just as President John F. Kennedy exercised leadership in recognizing the importance of the formation of the European Community.

Finally, from a global standpoint, Asian nations, with their increasing power, are in a position to shoulder more responsibility and to make more contributions to resolving global problems — such as the environment, infectious diseases, the illegal drug trade and international crimes — in an age where regional and global cooperation are increasingly necessary for tackling these problems.

An East Asia community would play a big role in instilling a sense of responsibility in Asian countries and in leading them jointly in contributing to the resolution of global issues.

Historically, Asia has made an effort to be recognized by Europe while focusing on being accepted by the U.S. It is now the U.S.' and Europe's turn to think seriously about how they will be fully welcomed and accepted by Asians.

The U.S. and Europe need to adopt a more cooperative stance in promoting the idea of an East Asia community, instead of putting it on hold and presenting arguments against it. Only then will they be accepted in Asia and by the people in this region as global partners in the true sense of the word.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation.

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