Home [ AND THE WORLD ] East Asian Community and Asian Reconciliation

East Asian Community and Asian Reconciliation

E-mail Print

Everyone is talking about the idea of creating an “East Asian Community”.  Japan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Okada have raised the issue as a priority of their government.  It was top of the agenda at the recent East Asian Summit.  And Australian Prime Minister Rudd has proposed the creation of an Asia-Pacific Community.


There are ongoing debates about who is in and out (Australia?, US?).  But what is most important is the possibility of reconciliation between China, Japan and Korea.  Nothing substantial will come to pass without that.  And this necessary reconciliation would be the great benefit of such a Commiunity.



The idea of an East Asian Community is an old one.  China’s great dynasties exercised suzerainty over many of its neighbouring countries meaning that they were tributaries of China.  They literally paid tribute and accepted Chinese control of their foreign affairs while retaining limited domestic autonomy.


The idea of an East Asian Community then took an ugly turn, as Japan invaded many East Asian countries in the first half of the 20th century under the pretext of creating a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.


Since then, we have seen the creation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asian Development Bank, Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (which includes several countries from the Americas, Russia, Australia and New Zealand) and numerous other organizations.  ASEAN also meets in an ASEAN+3 format since 1997 with China, Japan and Korea (a response to the Asian financial crisis), and in an ASEAN+6 format since 2005 which adds Australia, India and New Zealand (also know as the East Asian Summit).  In fact, East Asian diplomats spend too much time in international meetings, with very little to show for it. 


In 1990, Malaysia’s idiosyncratic Prime Minister Mahathir proposed the creation of an East Asia Economic Caucus – “a caucus without Caucasians”—which would have included ASEAN countries, China, Japan and Korea.  This idea provoked negative reactions from the US and Japan, and flopped.  In 1997, at the time of the Asian Financial Crisis, Japan proposed the creation of an Asian Monetary Fund which the US put a quick stop to.


Discussions of the East Asian Community idea have not just been hot air.  For one, a genuine community does exist in the sense that flows of goods, services, investment, capital and people in the region are very dense.  And the US and Australia are very much a part of that community.  The US is the final destination for much trade, and has also been the recipient of massive investments and large numbers of migrants.  Australia has been a major source of natural resources and also an important migration destination for the region.


Numerous free trade and economic partnership agreements have been concluded – among the ASEAN countries; separate agreements between ASEAN and countries like Australia, China, Japan, Korea and New Zealand; and also some agreements with individual ASEAN countries.  And ASEAN has committed to the creation of a common market by 2015.  The big issue is how could all these agreements be stitched together into an East Asian Free Trade Agreement – a very difficult challenge indeed, all the more so given that Japan and Korea resist ferociously the idea of opening up agriculture.   There is some hope in that Japan, China and Korea have agreed to begin, in the first half of next year, joint research involving academic, government and private sector representatives to study the possibility of forging a trilateral free trade agreement.


While people talk of the possibility of creating a single currency and other deeper co-operation, everyone recognizes that such initiatives are for the very long term.


The very notion of an East Asian Community draws parallels with the European Union, and everyone hastens to say that East Asia’s community will not be the same as the European Union because the Asian countries are so diverse in terms of levels of development, political systems and culture.  May be.  But Europe’s current members were also very diverse, and had a much worse history of conflict than Asia.


A more important distinction is perhaps this, that after years and years of war, Europe just had to create a community.  And fortunately our American friends were pushing them to do so.  Another motivation was of course communism which had settled in just next door to Western Europe.


These factors forced a reconciliation between the major European powers.  And this is where East Asia still has much to do between China, Japan and Korea.  In 1978, Deng Xiaoping made an important trip to Japan with the objective of learning how to modernize his country which had fallen way behind, and also to attempt a reconciliation with Japan.  As he told Prime Minister Tanaka, Japan and Korea had a good history for 2200 years, and a bad history for just 50 years.  Following Deng’s visit, there were promising signs of a warming of China/Japan relations, but Deng’s initiative did not penetrate the Chinese political system.


Following the Tiananmen Square incident, the Chinese government was very concerned about social and political stability, and especially concerned about its student population.  So, in 1992 it launched into a program of teaching nationalism and fostered anti-Japanese attitudes.  This was exacerbated on the Japanese side by the visits by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi from 2001 to 2006 to the Yasukuni Shrine which honours war dead, including convicted war criminals.  When the government-supported anti-Japan protests by Chinese students got out of hand in 2005, the Chinese government realized that it may be going too far. 


There has since been some softening of China’s attitude to Japan, although the Chinese government is internally divided on the issue.  Projects like a joint China/Japan/Korea history by academics from all three countries are blocked, although recent trilateral summits between the three countries offer some hope.


Enter Japan’s new Prime Minister Hatoyama, who was elected just a couple of months ago.  He has pushed the idea of an East Asian Community in a spirit of reconciliation and fraternity with China.  Although initially perplexed, China has now reacted positively.  Hatoyama has even pledged that neither he nor any member of his Cabinet would visit the Yasukuni shrine.


East Asian regionalism has been led for too long by the weak rump of ASEAN with the big powers just dancing around it.  Today, thanks to Hatoyama, we have the opportunity of a real community, led by the region’s biggest countries, which could decide to bury the Hachette.  Let’s hope that they seize the occasion.