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Friday, Sep. 7, 2012

Will ASEAN step up to try to bridge Japan-China rift?

Special to The Japan Times

KYOTO — The fury unleashed between China and Japan over the past few weeks has cast a long shadow over peace and stability in the northeast Asian region and beyond. At first glance, the conflict was interpreted as purely an act of patriotism, particularly on the part of China.

Recently a fishing boat filled with Hong Kong activists determined to proclaim China's sovereignty over the contested Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyus) finally claimed success after landing on the islands' shores. But soon they were arrested and deported by the Japanese authorities.

Simultaneously, massive anti-Japanese rallies in various parts of China were organized, marking yet another low point in their relations. The bilateral conflict has also been exacerbated by historical baggage. Japan has been consistently accused by China of glossing over the country's wartime atrocities by allowing key government figures to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

For some, territorial disputes and history are not the only burdens in Sino-Japanese relations. The list of issues plaguing bilateral ties ranges from gas drilling in disputed areas of the East China Sea to the differences of opinion and, more importantly, in tactics for dealing with the North Korean nuclear program. Japan is of the impression that China, as chair of the six-party talks, has not acted in its relations with North Korea as Japan would have expected it to do.

In looking closely, however, the real debate is not about Japan's militaristic past or territorial disputes or a failure to whitewash the old curses.

At the heart of the problem lies the question of which, Japan or China, will emerge as the dominant Asian power in the new century. Japanese ambivalence to China's peaceful rise is becoming more apparent as the level of political, military and economic competition between the two countries intensifies.

Japan is apprehensive about the prospect of being replaced by China as the manufacturing hub of Asia, and of losing its dominance in the Southeast Asian economic sphere in the wake of Chinese free trade agreements (FTAs).

At this complicated crossroads, the Sino-Japanese power struggle has been carefully factored into Southeast Asia's strategic calculations, given that conflict between the two countries is potentially detrimental to stability and development throughout Asia.

Can this shift in regional order be transformed into a political and economic boon for Southeast Asia?

In particular, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations depends on the region's reactions and policy options, which by necessity must be equally compatible with Chinese and Japanese interests.

So far, ASEAN's relations with Japan and China have been kept amicably on track. Japan was one of the first nations to dispatch volunteers for the rescue mission to and the reconstruction of areas devastated by the tsunami in Southeast Asia nearly eight years ago. In recent years, increasing trade between ASEAN and Japan has not only lifted relations to a higher level and contributed toward starting FTA negotiations, but also signaled Tokyo's aspiration to pursue a bigger political role in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, on the bright side, ASEAN and China are enjoying the fruits of their FTA, which has produced double-digit growth in bilateral trade. Some ASEAN members feel comfortable with China's rise, such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, and believe that it deserves their positive response. But the conflict in the South China Sea between some ASEAN members and China may derail the organization's attempt to consolidate its ties with Beijing.

In light of the Sino-Japanese conflict, ASEAN's role and responses have appeared to be constrained by its intimate relations with both powers.

ASEAN has assiduously sought to moderate these tensions while giving both Japan and China greater room to maneuver so that they feel less victimized by each other. ASEAN has a myriad of appropriate platforms for China and Japan to maintain their dialogue. Despite numerous constraints and its own issues with China in the South China Sea, ASEAN is therefore in an advantageous position in the conflict between China and Japan.

From an economic perspective, intense Sino-Japanese friction has already benefited other regional players. Taiwan's manufacturers are eager to expand their market share in China and fill the gap that would exist if nationalist Chinese consumers decide to boycott brand-name and high-quality Japanese products.

Likewise, the Sino-Japanese standoff could benefit ASEAN manufacturers if Japanese investors relocate their production bases from China to Southeast Asia. More benefits could be rendered to ASEAN's booming tourism industry. Safety concerns among Japanese tourists in China will drive them to friendlier destinations like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

All of these economic rewards appear attractive for ASEAN, but only in the short run. It would be regrettable if China and Japan move further toward physical conflict, which would leave Asia more vulnerable and in a weakened state.

The opportunity for Southeast Asia is to take up the diplomatic challenge whereby smaller states can effectively enlarge their role in peacemaking between Asia's two rivals. Available forums in the region, such as ASEAN-plus-three and the East Asia Summit, could provide the venue for China and Japan to set aside their political and historical differences and focus more on developing friendship, for their own sake and that of the region.

China will end up struggling in its economic development under the present hostile environment. Japan's greater political role will fail at the outset without Chinese support. At this juncture, ASEAN's international standing could reach new heights by helping to facilitate dialogue between China and Japan.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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