Improved Sino-japanese ties good for region
THE latest sign that Sino-japanese relations are thawing has been widely applauded by all Southeast Asian countries. The talks on maritime security in Shanghai early next month will mark a new milestone for Asia’s most important bilateral relations.
At the recent ASEAN summit in Manila, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held their bilateral meeting and provided mutual assurances of future dialogue to strengthen their friendship. In 2003, ASEAN also served as a forum for the two Asian economic powers to hold a dialogue and subsequently improve their relations.
Doubtless, the world’s No. 2 and No. 3 economies are important to the ongoing process of community-building in ASEAN, which began in earnest two years ago. The region’s economic integration cannot move forward without good working relations between the region’s most dynamic economies. Anything less will seriously affect the overall strategic environment in this part of the world.
For the past several years, amid a high-level of Sino-japan tension, ASEAN members have found themselves backed into a corner. They mostly felt unease because these two countries are considered their best friends. The irony is that none of ASEAN members were willing to choose sides. As such, it has been a difficult situation for everyone because cooperation could not continue and new initiatives could not be taken. Therefore, a broader East Asia Community remains elusive. Without a dramatic improvement in Sino-japanese relations, the economic future of ASEAN and the region is far from certain.
For instance, the ASEAN-LED economic bloc known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would not be completed by next year. Obviously, improved Sino-japanese ties would provide a much-needed impetus for the two economic giants to provide leadership and compromise on key issues. Japan has already shown leadership in pushing for the Trans-pacific Partnership 11. If China and Japan collaborate, the RCEP would become a new economic driving force in the region and the rest of the world.
Notably, both Abe and Xi have strong personalities and confidence in leading their countries. They also have strong support in their countries to pursue their domestic and foreign policies. In Japan’s recent general election, Abe received a clear mandate to transform Japan into a global player that promotes rule of law and transparency. In previous statements, Abe made clear Japan would like to be a country that can defend itself and its friends. Furthermore, it wants to participate in peacekeeping operations around the world.
For the past four decades, Japan only engaged economically with South East Asian countries, promoting economic development and raising their standard of living. Japan succeeded in linking together the former Indochina and ASEAN countries under the flying geese model, which enabled the more advanced economies to uplift the less developed ones through production chains and networks.
Disputes between Japan and China in the East China Sea intensified in 2012, quickly turning their amiable relations upside down. Their cooperation halted, which affected their relations with ASEAN. The group’s members are very mindful of their positions in the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea, which can be manipulated by outsiders. When Cambodia chaired ASEAN’S annual meeting in 2012, the group did not issue its customary joint communiqué due to disagreements over the South China Sea. The international community pointed its finger at Beijing, accusing it of bringing pressure to bear on Phnom Penh.
Under Xi’s leadership, ASEAN is a key ally in China’s global strategy. Beijing knows well that if its ties with the 10-member group go wrong, it will have a negative effect on the country’s diplomatic outlook. In fact, SINOASEAN relations are no longer the same as they were 25 years ago, due to tensions over the South China Sea. It was fortunate that in recent months, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte chose to dilute the tension with China by focusing on common efforts to boost economic development instead of dwelling on their differences.
China is well aware of the verdict on the South China Sea dispute by the Permanent Court of Arbitration last July that favoured the Philippines. Without referring to the PCA decision, Manila decided to move on with bilateral ties and agree to increased confidence-building measures with China. The outcome so far is a win-win situation, and improved Sino-philippine ties have had a good effect on ASEANCHINA relations.
Now, with the Sino-japanese thaw, the prospect of accelerating efforts toward an East Asian Community look more promising than ever. ASEAN must continue to be the glue between the two powers so that they can work for stability and progress in the region.