How We Should View the Rhapsodizing Concerning the East Asian Community Concept


For the last few years, regional cooperation in East Asia involving Japan, China, the ROK and ASEAN has been progressing in an extremely lively manner, focused mainly on the economy. With regard to trade within the East Asian region, both imports and exports are already considerably higher than 50% and both the Asian NIEs (Singapore, Hong Kong, the ROK and Taiwan) and Japan dominate the countries of the West in terms of investment in East Asia. Total Japanese trade with China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) now exceeds trade with the US. One eminent economist has gone so far as to describe it as “the East Asianization of East Asia”. Given this situation, the debate surrounding the “East Asian Community” has become the hottest topic among bureaucrats, politicians, businesspeople and academics in the countries of Asia.

In China, the active promotion of regional cooperation mechanisms has been noticeable, including the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the agreement regarding negotiations for an FTA with ASEAN, the country’s leadership of the six-party talks concerning the issue of the DPRK’s nuclear development, and the development of the Greater Mekong Subregion. In order to avoid being left behind China, Japan has begun negotiations with Asian countries regarding an FTA. Economic think tanks, such as the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren), the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) and the National Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA), have released a succession of research reports and policy proposals concerning the “East Asian Economic Community” and the “East Asian Business Zone”. In December 2003, the Tokyo Summit took place, attended by the leaders of various ASEAN countries, as well as Japan’s Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi; at the summit, the East Asian Community concept was clearly and unambiguously endorsed.

“East Asian Community Fever” has been increasing further, with such developments as the establishment in the spring of 2004 of the Council on East Asian Community (Chairman: former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone), which focuses on issues including security. A forum on the theme of an East Asian Economic Community was held in Taipei in the autumn of 2003. Academics from Japan, China, the ROK, Hong Kong and Taiwan took part and I gave a report about how non-economic factors in East Asian regional cooperation should be viewed. Thus, regional cooperation in East Asia is not stopping at economic matters, but is spreading to issues involving security and politics.

However, if we look at the atmosphere surrounding these discussions, we cannot but feel quite doubtful as to whether a true East Asian Community will be formed as a result. There are serious “emotional problems” between Japan and China, which are by far the strongest players in East Asia. A rash of incidents about which even the Chinese governmental authorities cannot hide their embarrassment has begun, including the “Northwest University incident” in which widespread anti-Japanese riots were triggered in autumn 2003 by a skit performed by Japanese students at the university, and the torrent of anti-Japanese booing seen during the Asian Cup soccer tournament held in Chongqing, Jinan and Beijing in the summer of 2004. On the other hand, incidents such as exploratory activities and drilling conducted by Chinese ships in the waters around the Senkaku Islands are increasing anti-Chinese sentiment among the Japanese. An emotional backlash against the other side at the level of ordinary Japanese and Chinese citizens is becoming apparent. As if to inflame public sentiment on both sides, a narrow, exclusionist nationalism is definitely beginning to assert itself among both Japanese and Chinese commentators. In addition, at a certain conference on the subject, people of varying opinions with an interest in the East Asian Community gathered together and the topic was the focus of hot debate, with bold pronouncements being made along the lines that “we must contain China’s increasing might through the formation of an East Asian Community”. I could not believe my own ears that they were advocating a “place China under siege community” based on the “take precautions against China” argument; what, I asked myself, was very community-spirited about that attitude?

Compared with the smooth progress of their economic relationship, it is difficult to say that Japan and China maintaining a good political relationship. It is common knowledge that Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine are a major thorn in China’s side. If Japan truly wants to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, securing support from China will be essential and it is obvious that China’s “emotional problems” vis-à-vis Japan will inevitably have to be tackled in order to do this. Despite this fact, Japan has not even attempted to improve the environment for dialogue with the Chinese Premier. I don’t particularly wish to preach the gospel of “Sino-Japanese friendship”, but I cannot believe it when I hear those who regard China as an enemy and advocate rivalry with it clamoring for the creation of an East Asian Community. It is necessary to recall and reflect thoroughly upon the painful lessons of history, particularly the collapse of the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”, which scorned the Asia of the time and was implemented without an emotional sense of solidarity. Aiming for the formation of a new “community” amid a real spirit of trust and mutual aid would truly be an endeavor with historic significance.

[Translated by ERINA]