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Battling for the New Asia

What are the key factors in the diplomatic battle over Asia’s future?

April 6, 2005

What are the key factors in the diplomatic battle over Asia's future?

It is perhaps hard for Westerners to fathom that the biggest diplomatic battle in the world has nothing to do with the Middle East or Europe or the United Nations, or even the selection of the next Pope.

Instead, it is a diplomatic struggle taking place among Asians. China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and other Asian nations are trying to decide whether their continent’s future economic and security system will be reserved for Asians alone, or whether the Americans will shoulder their way in.

That is the way the matter is being presented by the Chinese, who say the Americans should have no place in a purely Asian organization.

The Japanese, on the other hand, who do not relish the prospect of an Asian system dominated by China, are determined to keep the Americans locked into Asia to provide a balance against Beijing.

There are various sub-plots locked into the process, of which the most important is about India and its potential role as a balancing power against China.

A second sub-plot is Japan’s fervent wish to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a prospect that can be blocked by China’s veto.

China wants the first East Asian Summit — to be held in Kuala Lumpur in November 2005 as the inaugural ceremony of the new regional system — to include the ten countries of ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) plus China, Japan and South Korea.

But that would exclude India and virtually guarantee Chinese domination, so Japan and several of the more wary ASEAN nations are insisting that India be brought into the process.

Japan also wants Australia and New Zealand to be included, arguing that the more open the new organization, the less likely it is to become a vehicle for Chinese influence. Singapore and Indonesia broadly agree.

In a speech on the prospects of a new EAC (East Asian Community), Japan’s Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said, “India should be welcome — and Australia should also be welcome."

“The United States should also be welcome as an observer. The organization should be an open community,” Machimura went on. He also suggested that there might even be a role in the EAC for Russia.

So far, the discussions are all polite and reasonably good humored. The main issues at stake, at least on the surface, are commercial links and free trade pacts.

Another important issue is Asia’s need to develop a regional economic institution that can match the European Union or the North American Free Trade Agreement bloc of the United States, Canada and Mexico, and now Chile.

Just beneath the surface, however, the contours are starting to emerge of the Great Game of the 21st century — the coming struggle for mastery in Asia.

There are some uncanny echoes here of the tensions in Europe. China, rather like France in the European Union, wants a tightly defined Asian sphere from which the dangerous influence of an overbearing America can be excluded.

Japan, rather like Britain in the EU, is determined to keep the system loose and open and with a privileged place for the essential American ally.

After its experience with the Europeans, Washington is wary of new regional groupings that deliberately exclude the United States.

Accordingly, U.S. diplomats have started warning against the formation of an economic bloc centered on China, whose rapid economic rise and military buildup are making other Asian neighbors nervous.

The concept of an Asian regional institution — starting with trade and economic policies, but then maturing into deeper issues like security — is not new.

Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s dream of an East Asian Economic Conference was blocked by the United States a decade ago, and Malaysia is once again at the forefront of the new project.

The new proposals for an East Asian Summit system were floated at the last ASEAN summit in October 2004 in Vientiane, Laos, with Malaysia offering to host the first summit in Kuala Lumpur in November 2005, and then to host the permanent secretariat.

China is already lobbying to host the second summit, which would put Beijing at the heart of East Asia’s integration process.

There is heady talk from the Philippines' President Gloria Arroyo of “a new Asia” that includes ASEAN and India, China, Japan and South Korea.

She also sees this "new Asia" as able to “hold its own” in future negotiations with the United States, the EU or other economic groupings that may emerge in Latin America or the Middle East. Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi talks of “Asia’s monumental leap forward.”

This is premature. For one, the diplomatic skirmishing between Japan and China is still unresolved.

And some suspect that, unless Japan puts its Asian identity and interests before its strategic alliance with the United States, it could be a fight that Japan is doomed to lose.

A Japan that is seen as America’s unquestioning ally in Asia — much as Britain has been seen as America’s Trojan horse in Europe — would have trouble establishing its credentials to be a leader of Asia’s integration process.