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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012

ASEAN a glimmer of hope for easing China tension


SINGAPORE — The series of Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits next month could offer some hope of Japan and China mending their strained ties, according to the chairman of a Singapore think tank.

The 10-member ASEAN will hold its annual gathering in Cambodia next month, which will also involve leaders from East Asia, and this will provide a good opportunity for the Chinese and Japanese leaders to meet and try to resolve the tension over the territorial dispute, Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said during a recent interview.

"We will have the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN-plus processes, so they are forced to meet, at least they have a chance to meet," Tay said. "The best optimism I have is just patching over . . . it's clear that this relationship is not viable, not a sound relationship."

He stressed that "effort must be taken to build trust," including via channels outside direct standard diplomacy.

He said the current flareup of tension between the two East Asian giants in their dispute over the islands called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese shows both a lack of trust and dearth of diplomatic channels between the two countries.

"Even if it was not meant to be provocation, it was taken to be provocation. Perceptions differ so much," he said. "The problem is that this kind of trust is not there between China and Japan for a long time, so the front door is the only thing you have and that's not a good position."

He lamented that even the growing economic interdependence between the two countries has clearly not helped prevent the problem.

"The idea that economic interdependence will help soothe over, salve wounds of the past, that idea seems foolish," Tay said. "It's also doubly sad because these problems aren't happening just between the governments . . . but worse, I think, happening in the people.

"So it's like this wound is not healing, in fact it's spreading," he added.

Tay said that it looks like any kind of "Franco-German" style rapprochement is "now impossible."

"All we hope is that the other relationships don't go badly," he said, pointing to cooperation that has involved both China and Japan in the context of ASEAN.

He said the strain is bad for both Japan and China, even though China could lose more than Japan.

"Both sides do not gain, but I would say that if I have to estimate, China probably is likely to be the bigger loser," he said.

Japanese companies that have invested so much into China are reassessing whether to continue to invest there — which is not good for China, and is not good for Japan unless Japan can find an alternative.

Tay said if Japanese companies no longer feel safe in China, they might consider moving to countries in Southeast Asia.

He believes the tension has also been fueled by the "broader weakness of the politics" in these countries.

Tay also touched on the Liberal Democratic Party's selection of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as its new leader.

"He may be very nationalistic, hawkish, but you never know — sometimes it is the hawk that can make the peace, like Nixon," he said, referring to Richard M. Nixon, whose 1972 visit to Beijing marked the first time a U.S. president had visited China and ended more than two decades of frosty ties.

On the other hand, he said, "Things might settle down" in China after the Communist Party convenes its 18th National Congress on Nov. 8 and implements a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

But Tay isn't holding out much hope. "Even if it is slightly more settled than now, we cannot really expect a new Chinese leader to say the first thing I am going to do is make peace with Japan," he said.

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