January 06, 2014 00:00 By Kavi Chongkittavorn
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine sent mixed signals to the region. Up in the north, it immediately deepened mistrust and increased the tension in Japan's relations with China and South Korea. The two countries, me
When the Asean leaders met with Abe in December, they did not have a clue the Japanese leader had such a plan, hot on the heels of their summit. Otherwise, they would have been even more cautious with their joint statement, which said they “looked forward” – an indirect but implicit expression of support – to Abe’s new security plan, officially known as the Proactive Contribution to Peace.
In Asean, the shrine visit was not a national issue, although some members suffered from Japan’s militaristic policies during World War II. However, none wanted to be seen as giving tacit endorsement to such a controversial action. The Southeast Asian countries have been able to come to terms with the past horrors much better than China and South Korea, which went through longer Japanese periods of occupation. A good case in point is the Philippines, which has now initiated new forms of cooperation related to maritime security with Japan.
Overall Asean-Japan relations have been carefully crafted for the past four decades on economic fronts and based on pacifism. With Abe’s conservative leadership and Japan’s increased defence assertiveness, Asean is now opting for a pause to ensure that fast-moving Asean-Japan relations would not concentrate on security in ways that alter these relations. Asean does not want to damage such comprehensive ties, which have been on the mend for the past year.
From this standpoint, the positive sum of Abe’s shuttle diplomacy to all Asean countries over a year ago has been diminished. Inclusion of security matters in Asean-Japan relations are welcome with the aim of promoting peace and stability as well as maintaining the strategic balance in the region.
This year Asean fervently hopes its cooperation with China, Japan and South Korea will accelerate and make steady progress, especially with the ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a new premier regional free trade area advanced by Asean in November 2011.
Asean worries the China-Japan rocky relations – if they continue as such unabated – would seriously hamper the whole gamut of Asean-plus-three cooperation, including the integration of the Asean Economic Community.
Without a clear picture of China-Japan-South Korea relations, Asean might not be able to complete the RCEP within the 2015 deadline. Australia and India, another two RCEP partners, are not taking the lead. Currently, half of Asean’s member countries are in negotiations with the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership. The Philippines, the host of the 2015 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, could be next to join these negotiations. The US is pushing hard for an earlier conclusion following its 20th round of negotiations in Tokyo recently.
Beyond economic and trade issues, Asean has to reorient its security mindset towards the new strategic environment with two emerging features – the rise of China and China-Japan rivalry. Since its inception in 1967, Asean has relied exclusively on the US preponderance in the region without any challenge. After November 2011, the US rebalancing – the “pivot to Asia” – has increased US engagement in Asia. Within the region, Asean has responded in uneven and non-collaborative ways due to perceived US ambivalence during the second Obama administration.
Washington has so far failed to clear suspicions that this move is aimed at Beijing’s growing political and economic clout in the broader Asia region. In more ways than one, the Asean attitude towards the US rebalancing policy is predicated on the status of Sino-US relations. If the world’s most important bilateral relations remain stable and predictable, the US-Asean engagement would be intensified and its rebalancing would be given a big boost.
However, the region’s strategic environment is no longer US-led as in the past. That explains why, following China’s announcement of an air security zone in November, Asean was caught off guard and responded with a common position along with Japan on the freedom of air flights. With the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea, Asean hoped China would not repeat a similar action on the airspace above the disputed area.
With the continued unsettling crisis in the Korean Peninsula, South Korea would also like to include security and strategic cooperation with Asean when their leaders meet at the commemorative summit in Seoul in December for their 25th anniversary. For years, this hot spot – the Peninsula – has been discussed on the sidelines of the Asean Regional Forum. Now South Korea would like to intensify dialogue with Asean on the Korean Peninsula crisis and other security matters.
Lest we forget, the Asian financial crisis in 1997 brought the leaders from Asean, China, Japan and South Korea together for the first time in Kuala Lumpur. The prevailing sense of camaraderie at the time was very strong. The Chiang Mai Initiative and subsequent multilateralisation remains their legacy. Nearly two decades have elapsed and such optimism today does not come as readily.