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Monday, Oct. 30, 2006

East Asian community a tough prospect

Some cause for optimism but differences between nations remain sharp

Staff writer

OSAKA -- An East Asian community with a common currency and integrated economic system modeled on the European Union is the dream of optimists who point to the unprecedented economic exchanges between Japan, China and South Korea over the past few years as proof such a grouping is possible.

But pessimists warn that unresolved historical issues, fundamentally different systems of government among the nations and the current structure of Japan's alliance with the United States mean that it's unlikely an integrated East Asian community will become reality anytime soon.

These two views drove much of the discussion at a three-day conference in Osaka that concluded Sunday. Sponsored by Osaka City University and the European Commission delegation in Japan, the conference discussed what a future East Asian community might look like and what lessons might be learned from the history of the European Union.

The centerpiece of a regional community would be a common currency, and several speakers traced the history of the euro and called for stronger government efforts to establish a single currency for not only East Asia but also Southeast Asian countries with high levels of economic development.

"Gradual integration of the East and certain Southeast Asian economies could lead to a regional currency, in which Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand could participate," said Eiji Yamashita, a professor at Osaka City University and a member of the Council on East Asian Community, a blue-ribbon panel of experts that advises Asian governments.

The path to creating a community and a common currency faces numerous roadblocks, including Washington, which fears a weakened dollar as well as diminished power and influence in the region. One European participant warned that Japan's security reliance on the United States in particular is a major deterrent to an East Asian community.

"The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is a relic of the past. If you want true regional security and integration in Asia, use ASEAN as your model. If you want to ease political tensions, start by having the leaders of Japan and China agree that they will never fight each other," said Karl van Wolferen, a professor at the Institute of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam and a former Tokyo-based journalist.

Robert Eldridge, an associate professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy, however, said the Japan-U.S. alliance benefits the entire region, and acts as a positive catalyst for further regional security cooperation and has nonmilitary benefits.

"The alliance is the base for other forms of joint military cooperation between Japan and Asia. The presence of the U.S. military in Japan, and the Asian region, also plays a vital role in humanitarian aid, as was seen after the Asian tsunami in December 2004," Eldridge said.

Another problem is historical reconciliation. Conference participants were in agreement that former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's diplomatic policy toward China and South Korea was a failure. They expressed hope that Shinzo Abe will chart a different course, one based on reconciliation efforts like those of Germany and France, the EU's two most influential nations.

"Japan needs to accept the reality of the rise of China, no matter how bitter a pill it may be to swallow. Japan also needs to recognize that its pacifism originates more from a feeling that Japanese suffered during the war rather than from a recognition that Japan started the war and caused damage and pain to its Asian neighbors," said Toshiya Tsugami, president of Toa Capital and a former official of the Ministry to Economy, Trade and Industry.

"But reconciliation is a mutual effort. If China insists the only way to reconcile historical differences is for Japan to accept the official historical views of the Chinese Communist Party, reconciliation will be unlikely," Tsugami said.

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The Japan Times

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