An anxious Japan rethinks its future role in Asean

This time last year Japan's diplomacy created a political tsunami with new dynamic leadership and doctrine. Prevailing sentiment in the region was full of excitement and anticipation. It was all about Japan paying more attention to fellow Asians and leaning less towards the US. As the enthusiasm was shaping up, the dream generated by the nine-month old maverick former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama's government took a sudden dip and woke up to a new reality. Quite predictably it has a long and nightmarish consequence within the region, Asean in particular.

At the moment, Japan is full of anxiety that it has lost Asean, its long-time economic backyard - or to use the preferred euphemism - economic partners.

With the combined rise of China and India dominating headlines and coffee-table discussions, Japan realises the country no longer has the power and niche quality that it used to enjoy throughout the past four decades. Unfortunately, such self-doubt comes at the most pivotal time when strong Japanese leadership is needed given the emerging new strategic environment.

Rapid changes of leadership in Japan in past years have generated the perception of non-sustainable policy focused on the region - even on economic matters, which have been the main strength of Asean-Japan relations. Worse of all has been the psychological outcome of Japan about to lose its position as the world's No. 2 economic power to China in the near future.

This reality has gradually sunk into the minds of Japanese decision makers, especially at the Foreign Ministry. Indeed, they are currently spending sleepless nights trying to figure out how to re-engage with the region, which could be less dependent on Japan's economic supremacy and make it more encompassing. They know Japan needs to reassess and review Asean-Japan relations and find out what went wrong or missing all these years.

Should Japan initiate new areas of cooperation with Asean, both in track one and track two levels that involve more sensitive matters? Japan has gained valuable experience in assisting the West and other regions in security, conflict prevention, humanitarian operations, as well as non-traditional security matters such as climate change and natural disaster management.

As far as the region is concerned, Japan had a brief stint in bringing together the conflicting parties in the Cambodian conflict in late 1990's, which subsequently led to its first peacekeeping mission - as well as its first human casualty - there. Later on, along with other Asean countries, Japan helped with the national building process in East Timor. Outside the region, Japan's role in international security has been more forthcoming and proactive.

While Tokyo would like to intensify cooperation in non-economic matters with Asean, its leaders are mindful of the existing taboos associating with more assertive Japan in political and security fields. Due to its historical links with the region, Japan inescapably shaped all previous policies within the framework of economic and social development.

The so-called heart-to-heart policy, under the Fukuda Doctrine in 1977, was essentially a political one designed to unite the two divisive regions - communist Indonesia and non-communist Asean at the time. It took exactly two decades of continued efforts and hundreds of billions of dollars of grant and loans to allow all Southeast Asian countries under one roof.

Obviously, Japan will continue with this approach - to broaden the regional network production-base, stretching from India to the whole archipelago over here - that would also benefit Japan's investment and economic progress. But it will no longer be one-dimensional, as before.

The recent decision by the Asean foreign ministers to invite the US and Russia to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) beginning next year will have a far reaching implication towards the emerging strategic environment. The expanded EAS will certainly open up the unique opportunity for all major powers to increase their diplomatic level playing fields as never before seen. The regional outlook will never be the same.

For decades, the rivalry between China and Japan was the key theme in regional cooperation and integration. Through Asean networks of meetings, their leaders have efficiently used the platforms to increase mutual trust and understanding, which underpins their current strong ties. Intensified discussions and cooperation for a new regional architecture have been possible due to their friendship.

As the cooperation among the plus three countries (China, Japan, Korea) proceeds confidently after their momentous summit in Fukuoka, Japan in 2008, Asean knows that the time has come to widen the regional engagement more intensely to include selective major powers - the US and Russia. This scheme will allow Asean to play off major powers and maintain its centrality.

While Washington's dramatic decision to join the EAS ahead of the Asean meeting in Hanoi last month came as a surprise, it was a big relief for Asean which constantly fears US negligence. Now the world's greatest super power is plugged into the Asean blood artery as the EAS would become the region's largest leaders' forum led by Asean. Indeed, the EAS membership - including the ascension to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation last year - helps to sharpen the US's future role since the Nixon Doctrine's thumbs-down policy in 1973.

Now, the US is back and has deliberately chosen to incubate its role within the regional framework. By supporting Asean centrality in the regional scheme of things, Washington is essentially boosting its own role. Closer cooperation and consultation with Asean will greatly benefit the US and counter other rising powers. Washington was wise to invoke the 2002 Asean-China code of conduct of concerning parties in South China Sea when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched on the disputes in the resource-rich maritime area.

Judging from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechie's unequivocal response to Clinton's comment, the US-China rivalry on transnational issues, including the mekong region, would be the template forthe future. As such this new strategic environment enables Japan, which has been relieved as China's main opponent within the Asean framework, to find a new niche and contemplate on more engaging and vigorous future roles.

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