Little Prospects for Japan’s Proposed “East Asian Community”

Peter Volberding, BASC Research Assistant

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s recent proposal for an East Asian Community is expected to raise eyebrows at Saturday’s trilateral summit in Beijing between the leaders of Japan, China, and South Korea. Inspired by the successes of the European Union, Hatoyama’s prosaic vision aims to foster economic growth and ensure regional stability. But calls for greater Asian integration are nothing new, and are rarely successful—is this proposal any different? Probably not.

What is different is Japan’s interest in regional affairs. The LDP’s half century stranglehold over Japanese politics relied on a close relationship with Washington, often at the expense of Beijing or Seoul. Prime Minister Hatoyama’s sudden shift in foreign policy reflects his desire to reassess Japan’s relations with its neighbors. His promise to not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and his proposal for an East Asian Community, for example, are important first attempts at increasing rapport in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.

However, the East Asian Community seems to be more about self-interest rather than repentance. The DPJ faces a stagnant domestic economy, and sees increased economic cooperation as a means to increase Japan’s economic growth potential. While the party has certainly prioritized improved international relations, this aim is most likely ancillary to domestic economic goals.

In addition, as many Chinese scholars have eagerly emphasized, this proposal was actually first promoted in the early 1990s—and it became ASEAN + 3. Why has Japan proposed yet another grouping? Japan desires to check China’s growing regional influence. In fact, Japan’s proposed East Asian Community not only includes the ASEAN + 3 nations, but also Australia, New Zealand, and India. This “ASEAN+6” grouping has already been in existence since 2005 in the form of the East Asia Summit (EAS), whose meetings have thus far produced little more than broad statements about energy cooperation. Japan’s not-so-secret intentions to balance China in the EAS have thus far tempered Chinese interest in the grouping, and China will have the same reaction to any East Asian Community consisting of this larger “+6” format.

Finally, the East Asian Community will ironically force Japan to address sensitive domestic issues. For example, a new economic community would undoubtedly pressure Japan to liberalize trade, reduce domestic farm subsidies, and ease restrictions on foreign laborers. Given the heavily entrenched interests of industry and agriculture, I am skeptical that the Japanese government will revisit these policies anytime soon.

If the current problems of the EU are any indication, the East Asian Community faces little prospect of succeeding. Enormous economic and political heterogeneity in Asia preclude any semblance to the European integration model. Furthermore, historical distrust is routinely manifested in public protests against Japan, reducing the likelihood that the Chinese and South Korean governments would agree to increased integration in the near future, even if the plan were advantageous for all parties.

While economic integration in Asia is an admirable idea, the East Asian Community is not a viable option. Deep-seated political suspicions will thwart discussions, and Prime Minister Hatoyama will leave Beijing empty-handed.

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