Sat, Dec 24, 2005 - Page 8 News List

EAS fuels China-Japan tensions

By Sushil Seth

The inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS), held in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 14, has brought the region's power politics into sharp focus. For Malaysia, which took the initiative in forming the EAS, it is the realization of a proposal made by former prime minister Mahathir Mohammed who, in the 1990s, first floated the idea of an East Asia Economic Caucus. At the time, the idea was squashed by the APEC forum. Time and China's acquiescence have now made that proposal a reality.

But, predictably, China is doing its best to ensure that the formation of this new political body doesn't weaken its grip on the region. It wasn't keen on India's participation, nor, for that matter, Australia or New Zealand's. But some of the ASEAN countries pushed for India's inclusion as a counter-balance of sorts to China, and Australia and New Zealand were probably included as a gesture to the West -- and to emphasize that the EAS is not an anti-US cabal.

As a result, the EAS is comprised of 10 ASEAN countries plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. But its core will consist of the ASEAN+3 (10 ASEAN countries plus China, Japan and South Korea), with the second tier also including India, Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, the favored formula is ASEAN+3 (meeting among themselves, as they have in the past), followed by an ASEAN+6 summit.

India won't be happy being sidelined in this manner. The ASEAN+6 summit will more or less be asked to ratify decisions already made by ASEAN+3. And Japan would probably prefer an ASEAN+6 format without any intermediate ASEAN+3, in order to counter the strength of China and South Korea.

Whatever the future configuration of the EAS (it is a work in progress), its future will depend on the state of relations between China and Japan. Presently, their leaders are not even on speaking terms.

Understandably, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, in his role as the host, declared the EAS a success. But Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), still seething over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, wasn't at all keen on meeting with his counterpart on the sidelines of the conference.

It must be said that Koizumi could defuse the situation somewhat by relocating the graves of indicted war criminals to another location. Although China and South Korea are the ones making this a major political issue (their economic relations with Japan remain healthy, however), other countries in the region are also baffled by Japan's insensitivity.

Writing in the Jakarta Post, Begi Hersutanto (a research scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta) said that Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine "show arrogance and insensitivity to neighboring countries ? [and] have the potential not only to jeopardize Japan's foreign relations, but also to endanger the prospects of regional community building."

There is a lot of hype surrounding the prospects of an East Asia community emerging along the lines of the EU. Japan is blamed by some for damaging the chances of this happening through its row with China. It is argued that with Japan and China in a state of undeclared hostility, an annual EAS will become more newsworthy for the state of Sino-Japanese relations than any progress in regional community building. There is, therefore, a sense that Japan should somehow make up with China on its terms.

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