Officially, Japan wants a leadership role in the yet-to-be-born East Asian Community (EAC). Yet the reverse could be true, with US-allied Tokyo possibly playing a pivotal part in seeing that the grouping never even sees the light of day.
With two months to go before the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand meet in Kuala Lumpur for an East Asian summit, they have yet to agree on an agenda for the meeting, which is aimed at laying the foundations for the EAC.
"Japan does not appear to be an enthusiastic supporter of the EAC," said Lu Yiyi, senior research fellow at The Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, expressing the views of most analysts and commentators.
Now that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has a two-thirds majority in the Lower House of parliament, he can be expected to whole-heartedly pursue Japan's regional foreign and security policies centered on his support for the US and its interests, realistically leaving limited room for multilateral initiatives with Japan in the driver's seat, such as within the EAC.
Further, Tokyo can't be expected to throw its full weight behind a grouping that excludes the US. Washington has repeatedly requested "observer status" at the EAC summit, but there has more or less been agreement among Asian governments since May that Washington would not be invited. The US's deputy sheriff in Asia, Australia, has been unable to rally much support for the US's participation.
The idea of an EAC goes back to the beginning of the 1990s and Malaysia's former prime minister Mahatir Mohammed's idea of an East Asian Economic Caucus. "An Asia caucus without Caucasians," is what Mahatir wanted for himself and his fellow Asians then to counterbalance US economic and military dominance in Asia and beyond.
His vision, however, never made it beyond the planning stage, mainly because Japan and other Asian nations friendly to Washington were opposed to his Asian masterplan accompanied by chauvinistic -- and at times -- hostile rhetoric.
Asia's lack of enthusiasm to include the US in the EAC does not come as a surprise to David Shambaugh from George Washington University. "Many Southeast Asian governments are frustrated by Washington's myopic focus on the 'war on terrorism' in the region, to the exclusion of regional concerns," he wrote in the international media.
Japan on the other hand does not seem to have a problem with the US focus on its "war on terrorism" and has just announced an extension to its humanitarian and aid mission in southern Iraq, as well as its assignment in the Indian Ocean to provide logistical support for the US and British military fighting what is left of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In short, Japan appears more concerned with its security policies, and EAC-style multilateralism does not feature too prominently on its agenda.
Indeed, agreeing to upgrade its bilateral military alliance with the US through the revision of the so-called US-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, its decision to commit itself to co-develop a regional missile defense system with the US and Koizumi's enthusiasm to confirm Japan's preparedness to fight alongside the US in a Taiwan Strait military contingency give the impression that Japan is preparing itself for war, and not for the beginning of a new Asian multilateral era.
Whereas until the early 1990s Japan's foreign and security policies were centered around "foreign economic policy" through development aid, economic assistance and, above all, the generous provision of overseas development assistance, joint US-Japanese saber-rattling and Tokyo's graduation from reluctant junior alliance partner and useful handyman to full-fledged military ally seems to dominate Tokyo's agenda these days.
Japan, Asia's "lead goose" of regional multilateralism and economic as well as political integration in the 1990s, has turned into a lame duck, and Koizumi's obsession to expand ties with Washington will make sure that Tokyo will not be Asia's multilateral locomotive as long as he is around.
Then again, China's newly gained preference for multilateralism and its support for the EAC, Japanese and American policymakers agree, must be carefully watched. Beijing, the alarmist rhetoric in Tokyo and Washington goes, is planning to use the EAC as an instrument to limit US influence in Asia by establishing its political, economic and military dominance in the region.
Beijing might indeed want to do just that, and leaving aside the "ASEAN-is-the driver of the EAC" rhetoric, China has repeatedly indicated that taking a leadership role in the EAC is what Beijing really wants.
Already last December, during the 10th ASEAN summit in Vientiane, Laos, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that the EAC was a "long-term strategic choice in the interests of China's development".
However, the EAC might not necessarily turn out to be the appropriate playground for Beijing to prepare itself to call the shots in Asia, given India's participation in the EAC. Leaving aside that India is not even part of East Asia, Delhi, like Tokyo (and possibly Seoul, too), is, as analysts widely believe, very unlikely to accept Chinese leadership of the EAC, no matter how it is configured.
Given the limited number of countries in Asia (none?), which still seriously believe in Japanese leadership in Asia, it comes as no surprise that Japan enthusiastically welcomed the admission of its fellow deputy sheriff in Asia, Australia, to the EAC.
After insisting for months that preemptive military action against terrorists and other evil-doers must remain part of Australia's Asian security policies, Prime Minister John Howard recently signed ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the quasi-entry ticket into the EAC that provides for, among other things, peaceful settlement of conflicts and non-interference in internal affairs.
Both Koizumi and Howard are likely to report back to Washington after the summit, and show solidarity with Washington by continuing to play down the importance of the EAC as an initiative as it lacks the US.
Thus, one should not be fooled if in Kuala Lumpur Koizumi and other heads of states, operating on the "tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear" principle publicly talk up the EAC in an effort to make up for its vague agenda and even more fuzzy long-term goals and objectives: they will kill it with kindness.
Asia Times Online