Analysis: The East-Asian Trilateral Relationship

Mari Shibata - International News Editor 29 October 2009

The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit once postponed in May by Thailand due to domestic political clashes finally took place from October 23rd to 25th in Phuket. Many other Asian-based summits took place alongside it, including the 4th East Asia Summit (EAS) which took place on Sunday; ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand met to discuss on the direction of future of regional cooperation.

The meeting focused on building measures to prepare for various global challenges that affect the region, such as the political issues concerning Myanmar and the Korean Peninsula. The ASEAN leaders also reiterated their common mission to accelerate the WTO Doha Round negotiations; according to the Chairman of the fourth EAS summit, they have decided to aim and achieve an ambitious and balanced conclusion to the Round by 2010. Australia also proposed to establish the Asia Pacific community in which ASEAN will be at its core, but this is to be further discussed at a meeting later this year.

One other important topic – on building an East Asian community, an Asian equivalent of the EU – was brought up by the recently elected Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, an initiative backed by two other major Asian countries, South Korea and China. This idea of a trilateral relationship has been bubbling away in the political arena of these countries for ten years, however it was Hatoyama who had really been pushing this idea forward since his party ousted the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) in a historic election just two months ago; he led the discussions during the 10th trilateral summit earlier in the month on October 10th in Beijing.

In a joint press-conference statement after their discussions in early October, the three countries reaffirmed their commitment “to the development of an East Asia community based on the principles of openness, transparency, inclusiveness as a long-term goal.” This was welcomed by both Beijing and Seoul, as Hatoyama showed respect to their historical and cultural perspectives by not visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japanese war criminals; it was a refreshing sign of friendship that had not been expressed by recent Japanese leaders.

The Asian economy was a topic that was not going to be missed; in the EAS, Hatoyama highlighted the fact that the three countries together own 70% of East-Asia’s GDP. This demonstrates the potential for Asia to become an economic giant, levelling with the EU and America. There is also talk of creating an Asian currency.

However, there are, as expected, concerns surrounding the idea of this initiative. Firstly, there is little sign that Japan’s territorial disputes between both China and South Korea will be resolved any time soon. Japan claims the Takeshima, or Dokdoislets which are controlled by South Korea. And it controls the Senkakus, which is claimed by the Chinese and known to them as the Diaoyu Islands. If the cooperation is to be successful, there needs to be some kind of mutual agreement in place to avoid raising domestic matters at a later stage.

Secondly, the Japanese press are still raising questions on poisonous Chinese dumplings which sickened many of the Japanese population last year. Despite having agreed on talks on food safety between them, the Chinese seem unwilling to acknowledge that they were responsible. Although the issue may seem rather childish, questions have been raised with regards to trust, as it is the key to successful leadership in this cooperation.

Finally, there is the debate of whether America should be involved in this matter; a parallel to the debate surrounding the involvement of Turkey in the EU. Hatoyama had finally admitted that America should assist in developing this new initiative last weekend at the EAS, despite his continuously vague attitude and consistently saying that he has “no intention of excluding America completely”.

This ambiguity is largely to do with the backlash Hatoyama received from the American press for being anti-American, just after his election victory at the end of August; a summary of an article by Hatoyama on Japan’s foreign relations printed in the New York Times had come across as nationalist, which was the last thing he wanted as a leader with a more global vision in comparison to the previous governing party.

To make matters worse, Katsuya Okada, the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs, had continuously argued that America should not have to be involved in Asian matters. The issue of American involvement is not only sensitive in Japan, but in other Asian countries too; the majority of the ASEAN countries are protected by America’s military which means that they cannot politically alienate America.

However, despite all these problems, the fact that these talks are going ahead signals the determination that is going into making this initiative happen, notably by these three leading East-Asian countries. Only time can tell whether or not the rest will follow; although there were positive signs at the ASEAN summit, it depends whether it can work across varying degrees of the social, political, cultural and economic factors.

Mari Shibata – International News Editor