The East Asia Summit (EAS), a slowly-stabilising geopolitical forum that includes India and China as also Japan, is running behind schedule by a year. The fourth annual meeting of the EAS leaders, which Thailand is set to host later this month, should have taken place last year itself. Thailand’s internal political crisis explains the delay; and vivid still are the images of Thai protesters disrupting the planned summit last April.
It may be politically correct to avoid a value judgment now as to whether or not the delay has been a blessing in disguise for the 16-state EAS forum. However, two new political “visions” of East Asia as a potential community, overlapping and even competing in scope, are now in focus. The prospective summit will take place in the shadow of these “visions.”
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who assumed office after the EAS met in Singapore in 2007, has proposed an Asia Pacific Community. More recently, the new Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has envisioned an East Asia Community. A logical question is whether the United States, now a self-proclaimed resident power in East Asia, will figure in the nuclei of these communities.
The question is acquiring a politically-compelling tone, too. U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to attend a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Singapore later this year. Also likely then is a summit between the U.S. and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The 10-nation ASEAN prides itself on being the “driving force” behind the EAS and a host of other crisscrossing East Asian groups. This aspect and Mr. Obama’s new status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner are seen to raise the stakes of the prospective Singapore summitry.
The sheer prospect of such concentrated summitry has now stoked interest in how the patented visions of Mr. Rudd and Mr. Hatoyama will sparkle. It will be a political anticlimax if these leaders shy away from shining the spotlight on their visions at the EAS meeting in Thailand later this month. Now, whether Mr. Rudd and Mr. Hatoyama win the minds of the other EAS leaders or not, the U.S. already finds itself in the shadow of these visions.
Given this new reality, what are the defining features of these two vision-proposals? The answer is not easy to come by, if only because Mr. Hatoyama still chooses to keep the cards close to his chest. He has not so far defined his idea of an East Asia Community in terms of either geography or geopolitics. Three questions are in order.
Will this Community be the same as the existing ASEAN+3 framework with an institutionalised structure and functions? The ASEAN+3 entity has in its fold all the 10 Southeast Asian countries plus China, Japan, and South Korea. These three are Northeast Asian powers that have long-standing ties with the ASEAN countries.
The second poser is whether Mr. Hatoyama’s Community will be the same as the EAS forum with a prescriptive political and strategic agenda as well. At present, the EAS is a leaders-driven forum that can discuss any issue of cooperation or conflict among the 16 participant-countries. The ASEAN+3 countries share the EAS seats with India, Australia, and New Zealand as full participant-countries. So far, the EAS forum, too, has by and large limited itself to economic and social issues and not the pan-regional or global political challenges. The last question is whether the East Asia Community will give a pride of place to the United States, still a proactive player in the region?
Japan remains a key ally of the U.S. But Mr. Hatoyama has made no secret of his desire to steer Tokyo towards a new equation of equality with Washington. Such a political preference, not a firm policy as of now, certainly applies to the Japan-U.S. bilateral relationship. As for his idea of an East Asia Community, Mr. Hatoyama has emphasised that he has “no intention to exclude the United States.” Japanese spokesman Kazuo Kodama has told this correspondent that Mr. Hatoyama has also outlined a preference for “open regionalism.”
Mr. Rudd has not kept anyone guessing about the place of the U.S. in his vision of a new Asia Pacific Community. There is of course no specificity about whether or not the U.S. will be to this Community what the Sun is to the Solar System. Besides China and Japan, India too finds a prominent mention in Mr. Rudd’s East Asian perspective. In his presentation, which the ASEAN has endorsed, the Community will confront all regional challenges including those with a global reach. The subjects, too, would encompass the entire spectrum, including tricky political issues.
However viewed, the equations among the U.S, China, Japan, and India will be critical to the formation and functioning of a Community in East Asia. A related poser is whether the U.S. will feel tempted to play the India card against China, as Mr. Hatoyama’s Japan gravitates towards Beijing. Huang Jing, Singapore-based specialist on China-U.S. ties, has told this journalist as follows on this critical issue: “The new Japanese government has made it very clear that it will want to return to Asia — mainly because they want more independence from the United States. They want a better relationship with China [too]. … Japanese Constitution is a marriage contract between Japan and the United States. If you really want to rewrite this marriage contract, the entire marriage has to be reconsidered. … If this new administration in Japan just wants a functional [level] equal relationship with United States, that’s fine!”
On China as a factor in the Japan-U.S. equation, Mr. Huang said: “When they first met in New York, Mr. Hatoyama recommended to [Chinese President] Hu Jintao the East Asian Community [idea]. Mr. Hu Jintao’s response was very well-guarded. The reason is very simple. Whenever Japan makes a fundamental move in foreign policy, it always involves the United States of America. Although Japan is very important on China’s foreign policy agenda, the number one importance still goes to the United States. … I do not believe that China will try to develop any kind of relationship with Japan at the expense of the China-U.S. relations.”
On the India-China-U.S. angle, Mr. Huang said: “Realistically, there are three factors [why] China will not worry about India’s relationship with United States or Japan. One, both China and India have followed independent diplomacy. Second, there is a fundamental conflict of interests between India and United States [on the nuclear issue] and [also] the developed world, in terms of trade, climate change, energy, industrialisation, you name it. So, unless those issues have been solved, it is very difficult for India to develop a substantial relationship with any developed country. … And, the third factor is that China and India see more and more common interests on regional stability and security [issues], especially after the Xinjiang riots. … So, I am really optimistic [that] India and China will [move to] convergence rather than divergence.”