ASEAN Plus Three at Twenty: Perspective from Japan

The past two decades since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 have been testing but interesting times for East Asian regionalism. There is no doubt that the financial crisis resulted in hastening the pace for establishing concretemechanisms for regional cooperation and integration, much like giving flesh and bone to the “Asian Way” or what Funabashi Yoichi described as “Asian consciousness and identity.” ASEAN Plus Three, the forum that connects the ten ASEAN countries and the three Northeast Asian states, China, Japan and South Korea, was one such outcome – and arguably the most significant for the future of the region and for international politics.

Why? A simple answer may be that ASEAN Plus Three was grounded in a reality of growing economic interdependence between the East Asian countries that are also geographical and historically connected and culturally close. It was also the result of an incremental and informal process that took place as part of the region’s readjustment to the new post-Cold War realities, the rise of China being the most significant development. This is not to say that other important benchmarks in East Asian regionalism were founded on less credible rationale. The 1990s saw the birth of several regional forums, including APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), ARF (ASEAN regional Forum) and ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting), each addressing new needs and exploring new potentials for intergovernmental cooperation. APEC was crucial for the liberal order-countries led by the United States to engage China from 1993 onwards in intra-regional dialogue; while ARF enabled the region to address the thorniest of issues in the region, security.

However, the ASEAN Plus Three that emerged at the tail end of an enthusiastic decade of regionalism was a distinctly East Asian enterprise, whereas the others that came earlier were more inclusive (one might even say promiscuous) and geographically far reaching in their membership. It certainly manifested most closely to the idea of the East Asian Economic Caucus floated earlier in 1991 by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then-Prime Minister of Malaysia whom, together with Singapore’s then-President Lee Kwan Yew, promoted the notion of ‘Asian values’ in international discourse to counter the universalist pretentions of Western liberal values in the early 1990s. What has happened in the intervening years, roughly between the end of the Cold War until the 1997 Asian financial crisis or the first ASEAN Plus Three Summit in 1999, was a major transformation in the relations between the Plus Three states, China, Japan and South Korea that took place in a period when the notion of ASEAN Centrality in East Asian regionalism was also gaining wide acceptance. Indeed, without ASEAN Centrality, ASEAN Plus Three would not have been possible.

No easy task

The most significant achievement of ASEAN Plus Three for East Asian regionalism has been the establishment of the trilateral summit between China, Japan and South Korea in 2008. That this happened almost in spite of one of the worst downturns in post-war China–Japan relations during Japan’s then-Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s tenure spoke of the irreversible nature of economic interdependence that required the three countries to stay properly engaged. It should be remembered that Koizumi’s repeatedly visited Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of the 14 Class-A war criminals of World War II are interred together with 2.6 million souls of the soldiers who fought in Japan’s modern wars since 1868,

Although this was not the first time that a Japanese leader’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine had incited anger in Asian countries, Koizumi made the issue gain new heights of visibility by visiting the shrine every year and thereby risking regional isolation. The resulting diplomatic controversy in turn made the Yasukuni Shrine into a hotly contested domestic issue. As summit relations rapidly cooled, even on the fringes of ASEAN-related gatherings or APEC meetings, China finally cancelled the planned China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit that it was to host in September 2006. This was in response to Koizumi’s earlier visit to the shrine on 15 August, the day Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s defeat in 1945. Popular anti-Japan sentiment reached a peak during this period, as anti-Japan riots broke out in the final of the Asian Cup football match between China and Japan in 2004 and violent anti-Japan demonstrations broke out in major Chinese cities in 2005. Not surprisingly it was at this juncture that the association of Japanese businesses, Keidanren, expressed concern about the negative impact the Yasukuni visits was having on their economic interests in China. Ordinary Japanese began to question the wisdom of the visits, and even U.S. President George W. Bush, with whom Koizumi enjoyed good personal relations, was said to have cautioned him not to visit.

It is important here to have a sense of the distance the trilateral relationship has travelled in a relatively short span of time, despite still being weighed down by so much historical baggage with little progress on the front of post-war reconciliation. For, China, Japan and South Korea not only share a bitter history of war but the post-World War II normalization of relations between them was hampered by the onset of the Cold War that divided Northeast Asia into two camps. This froze any meaningful interaction between these countries for decades. Japan and Korea normalized relations in 1965, China and Japan normalized relations in 1972, and finally China and Korea normalized relations in 1992, only after the Cold War ended.

As such, during the Cold War period China, Japan and South Korea followed different timelines in their respective domestic political consolidation and economic development: China was in the throes of revolution, Japan was essentially concentrating on economic growth, and South Korea was alternating between democratic and military rules for much of the Cold War period. Reconciliation was not high on the agenda, and in the meantime deep mistrust towards Japan became entrenched in rhe domestic politics of both China and South Korea, while Japan lapsed into amnesia about its Asian war past. Interestingly, history has become an explosive diplomatic issue between Japan and its former victims, China and Korea in the years since the Cold War rather than during it, in part because time began to flow again between them with increased interaction, and memories of the war begged for political attention.

Even as global political tensions eased with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its effect was harder to notice in Northeast Asia. Japan had still to sign a peace treaty over World War II with Russia, China was all but isolated internationally because of the Tiananmen crackdown on students, and China and South Korea had not normalized relations yet. It is, therefore, not surprising that a tripartite gathering of China, Japan and Korea in the immediate post-Cold War years was a difficult (if not impossible) proposition. China–Japan and Japan–Korea track II dialogues had some history, but the China–Korea link was barely visible. And, they were tense and awkward affairs. For example, an early attempt to hold a trilateral meeting in Tokyo by one of Japan’s prominent foreign policy think tanks was met by resistance. The idea was to hold a joint session with Chinese and Korean delegates who were already in Tokyo on separate bilateral talks.

This is not to say that the need for a tripartite gathering was not recognized, but in hindsight the idea was perhaps not as compelling as it became in 1997, for neither China nor Korea was on the same economic footing as Japan at the time. More importantly any Japanese initiative that was not backed by Tokyo’s willingness to concede an unambiguous position with regards to its wrong doings in the past war was never going to have much traction for China and Korea. Moreover, unlike the track II trilateral process between Japan, Russia and the U.S., where the U.S. was essentially offering a neutral platform for Japan and Russia to address their differences and pave the way to normalize bilateral relations, a trilateral between China, Japan and Korea did not have the benefit of a third party that could be trusted with the role of a mediator to facilitate dialogue among the three.

This is where ASEAN enters into the picture, emerging as an important facilitator of regional dialogue and frameworks.

The ASEAN way of regionalism

East Asia’s regional frameworks are multi-layered with no single over-arching structure that is easily identifiable as the mother of all regional frameworks. It does not have a Brussels, single market, let alone regional security architecture. For this reason the complex regional mechanism in East Asia has often been unfavourable regarded as unorganised and ineffective when compared to the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). A US official once quipped in private, “You have to start streamlining the multiple regional frameworks, as our Secretary of State can’t be expected to attend all these meetings”. This may be so, but institutional rationality alone does not drive Asian regionalism.

In fact, the multiple layers of formal and informal regional frameworks reflected the way in which regionalism developed around what might be called the ASEAN way of consensus building and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. Any process of ‘integration’ starts with the process of coordinating the varied and often conflicting national positions to form a common vision. While this may be the same for both East Asia and Europe the outcome so far has been different. The EU has developed as an institutional expression of a common vision, while East Asian regional frameworks, for all their shortcomings, so far have sought importance in the process of enhancing pragmatic and functional cooperation where possible; the regional states do not as yet stand on a common footing to pursue a more explicitly integrationist agenda in the EU model that would require regional states’ willingness to be subject to institutional discipline and some form of effective, political decision-making mechanism in place of consensus-based talk-shops. If the sense of community strengthened as a result it was fortuitous; if not, no one was forcing anything with any deadlines.

In fact, the stress on pragmatism, functionalism, and preference for consensus building, combined with the non-interference principle is not only central to ASEAN but also to the Northeast Asian states as well. Respect for national sovereignty is of utmost important to all nations in Asia, if only because they are relatively young as nation-states. But that has not obstructed the process of forging closer ties and the groundwork for cooperation between them, even when mutual suspicion is quite strong. What was missing in institutional discipline, East Asian states were able to compensate in pragmatic ways when the necessity for letting down their differences arose in times of crisis, such as during the SARS or avian flu epidemic.

As a result, cross-border investment and production networks within the region today are densely connected, so much so that the massive earthquake in Tohoku Japan and the massive flooding in Thailand in 2011 that hit hard some Japanese manufacturing network became a vivid reminder to the region of their inter-connectedness.

Crunch time?

Yet, at the moment the situation looks less promising. The political and security situation has deteriorated considerably compared to previous decade of ASEAN Plus Three, when China’s rise was largely an economic matter, and the future of its power regarded with a mixture of caution and optimism. But as the messy maritime disputes in the South China Sea demonstrate, it is no longer possible to separate security concerns between Northeast and Southeast Asia. There are multiple factors here at play, which are beyond the scope of this article to address. Suffice to say that the region has truly entered the phase of transition and realignment. China’s confidence (some say hubris) has been steering the country to challenge the existing post-war regional order of American making, and the region is experiencing its unsettling effect.

Regionalism in East Asia has always had a weakness that make it vulnerable to a serious schism, such as one created when two influential powers, U.S. and China, compete for ideas about how the region may be organised. The undertones in this conflict of ideas are complex, reflecting the cultural as well as political diversity of the region itself. East Asia is home to several distinct cultural heritages. ASEAN countries are multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religion and also share the legacies of Western colonization. Political systems also differ. China, Vietnam and North Korea are communist states, Myanmar has only recently shed military rule, and political modernization and liberalization is still an on-going process in many countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

Mutual suspicion and low level of trust are still a running theme in the relations among East Asian states, even though they are also able to coexist relatively peacefully. This paradox reflects a historical circumstance: most East Asian states were post-colonial (and young) and the San Francisco Peace Treaty that Japan signed with its former enemies was not comprehensive, and therefore post-war, Cold War East Asia had multiple dividing lines, some more prominent than others but when combined they make the region less ready for a regional framework comparable to Europe’s Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that addressed mutual security concerns and enhanced transparency between the rivalling camps as a confidence-building measure.

The post-Cold War situation presented another potential divide between those who had benefited from the international liberal order under American protection and those who were newcomers to this order, especially China and the four states (Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia in order of accession) that joined ASEAN in the 1990s. Today, the maritime disputes that have arisen as a result of China’s determination to claim sovereignty over the areas within its disputed nine-dashed lines in the South China Sea threaten to pull apart ASEAN.

How the region pulls through is a complex equation. It rests at the strategic level on relations between China and the U.S. on the one hand and China and Japan on the other. Yet, what is equally important in the long run in establishing a lasting peace in the region is ASEAN Plus Three, for which not only Japan’s reconciliation with China and Korea is of critical importance but also the survival of a coherent ASEAN as regional facilitator. There is no point in denying that the role of the U.S. is limited in this regard, as it does not really appear to be in the interest of the U.S. (rhetoric aside) to see the three major East Asian countries forge closer ties. As impossible as it may seem for today’s China, Japan and South Korea to change their zero-sum mindset when it comes to reconciliation, it is imperative for them to escape sooner than later the trappings of history if East Asian regionalism is to have any chance for survival.

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