SINGAPORE Perhaps it is time that Asian countries expressed concern about
the rising temperature in the East China Sea. Animosity between China and
Japan has deep historical roots, but until recently the assumption was that
the heat of cooperative economic activity was warding off the chill of
mutual suspicion. This seems not to be the case in the wake of a sharp war
of words over disputed territorial claims in hydrocarbon-bearing waters
between the two countries and now, more alarmingly, over the sensitive issue
Add to this suggestions that Washington is using the widening rift between
China and Japan to bolster its security alliance with Tokyo and possibly to
contain China's growing economic and military clout, and you have a recipe
for cold war in a region that was supposed to be charting a course for
greater cooperation and integration.
When Japan's minister of foreign affairs, Nobutaka Machimura, and its
minister of defense, Yoshinori Ohno, met their American counterparts in
Washington in mid-February, the temperature of the China-Japan relationship
plunged still further. The joint statement hammered out between Japan and
the United States mentioned a number of common strategic objectives, among
them maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing reacted furiously,
calling the joint statement a threat to China's sovereignty.
While some Asian governments may initially welcome this development as a
move by Washington to check and contain China's rise, over the longer term
they may regret a reinvigorated U.S.-Japan alliance aimed at China. With
China's currency set to appreciate in value, China's economy will become an
even more crucial component of regional prosperity.
What then can the rest of Asia do? Certainly not sit on the sidelines and
wait for two of Asia's major powers to drift toward confrontation.
Asian nations need to come together and help China and Japan to accommodate
each other. The region simply cannot afford to become mired in a
geopolitical contest between superpowers or harbor fears of armed conflict.
For one thing, investors will feel insecure and start looking back to
Europe, which is successfully integrating and eliminating potential sources
of interstate conflict and friction.
Make no mistake: A cold war between China and Japan will have a corrosive
effect on business sentiment in the region. For one thing, it will
accelerate moves backed by conservative political forces in Japan to amend
the war-renouncing articles of the country's Constitution. It will force
Beijing to pursue its own strategic interests more aggressively, returning
the region to the era when China looked for support among home-grown
Communist parties in Southeast Asia and interfered in domestic politics.
There is one place that would be an appropriate arena to begin an urgent
process of reconciliation. Both China and Japan are proponents of the idea
of an East Asian Community, which at last gained traction in 2004. An
inaugural East Asian summit is due to be held in Malaysia at the end of this
year, and this would be a good occasion for the whole of Asia to urge China
and Japan to put aside their differences and return to the course of peace
Many smaller states will understandably be leery of getting between giant
China and Japan. But something needs to be done, or the promise of free
trade, monetary integration and intraregional investment flows will be
jeopardized. Clearly the best hope for Asia to secure prosperity and shield
itself from future economic shocks, even in this interconnected world, is to
forge a closer union of economies and financial systems. Ironically, Japan
has been at the forefront of developing ideas for an Asian Monetary Fund,
which, if established, would benefit China the most by helping to establish
the yuan as a regional trading currency once it floats.
Trade and investment are equally important. Southeast Asia's exports to
China, as well as Japan, have now become more important than its trade with
traditional markets in Europe and the United States. China and Japan have
begun negotiating a round of free trade deals with their neighbors, a
development that promises to create a tariff-free economic region stretching
from Pakistan to Korea. What if soured relations between China and Japan now
slow down this process of economic integration?
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Qan, said recently that in today's
world, it is "the general trend and people's expectation to seek peace and
development." It would be good to see all the participants at the
forthcoming East Asia summit embark on building a true East Asian Community
in the spirit of peace and development rather than competition and conflict.