The South China Sea disputes which involve China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Veitnam and Brunei.
The role played by China and Japan has generated numerous strategic implications for their relations with ASEAN and the EAC process, both positively and negatively. In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), both China and Japan have evidently stepped up their diplomatic game in cultivating their influence in this relatively least developed region. But they have cooperated in the promotion of the GMS development too. For ASEAN, this regionalisation process has continued alongside its own aspiration to lead the region, as evident in the vigorous debates involving Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia in the search for a kind of regional integration they needed.
There are at least three benefits stemming from the Sino-Japanese dynamics, which can enhance the community-building process. First, the seeming competition between the two countries for leadership has set a new precedent for other countries in the neighbourhood to revise their strategic position and to take a leading role in regional cooperation for the sake of their own national interests as well as those of the region. New initiatives from China and Japan designed to influence the shape and form of an EAC allowed ASEAN to find the most appropriate modality for a future cooperative framework.
For example, ASEAN had a chance to compare Japan’s Concept Paper on the EAC with China’s Modality Paper, and picked what it thought was best for the region. This could serve as a good example for smaller countries, such as South Korea or New Zealand, to stand up and claim their share of regional prosperity through their vision, initiatives and recommendations regarding an EAC. In fact, the idea and concept of the EAS were originally from the reports of the East Asia Vision Group (EAVG) and the East Asia Study Group (EASG) that were spearheaded by the initiative of Korea.
Second, the different approaches of Beijing and Tokyo presented an opportunity for ASEAN to cement its central role in an EAC effort. The perceived competition between Japan and China has moulded certain bonds in their relationship with ASEAN. Both China and Japan, to various degrees, have been willing to support ASEAN’s centrality in regional integration. They are content to accommodate ASEAN even when they realise that the grouping may not be capable of tackling certain issues. The existence of different opinions also permits ASEAN to exercise its leadership and authority to make decisions where agreements between China and Japan cannot be reached, particularly on the modality and future direction of an EAC.
Besides, ASEAN can strengthen its leadership in APEC, with the support from both China and Japan—all of which (except Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) are members of this trans-Pacific organisation. Some countries are particularly active in the promotion of APEC, such as Singapore and non-ASEAN members like the United States. Some ASEAN members are also taking part in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) Dynamics between China and Japan will certainly contribute to the progress of many FTA cooperation frameworks in the region, such as the TPP, and as a result, to the region’s overall economic growth.
Third, in the context of ASEAN-Japan relations, the rise of China has in many ways brought them together, even closer than before. ASEAN needs China for its own economic growth. But ASEAN is also wary of China’s growing influence in the region. ASEAN has thus shared with Japan a certain concern about the influence of China in Southeast Asia. As Japan and ASEAN have found a common interest in the face of China’s rising power, their relationship has progressed further. Meanwhile, the US and Australia have had solid relations with Japan and maintained their firm ties with key ASEAN members. These factors are imperative for Japan and ASEAN in generating a balance of power in the face of China’s rise.
But after all, is it too soon to celebrate the success of the EAC just because the seeming competition between Japan and China may have produced some benefits for the region? If the tension between China and Japan escalates, then it may well destabilise the region. After all, too much emphasis on the supposed rivalry would only highlight the importance of national interests on the part of Japan and China over the ultimate goal of achieving genuine regional integration.
Moreover, it may sway the ASEAN agenda at the EAS. Since the concentration is to maintain their dominant position in the region, both China and Japan have been trying to influence the EAS agenda so as to satisfy their own national interests. Ironically, while such attempt on the part of China and Japan may encourage ASEAN to act as a united organisation that could bridge the differences, it could also challenge its own unity.
At the end, if history is any indication, ASEAN must realise that too much outside interference could harm regional integration efforts. In the past 60 years, almost all attempts to create regional groupings here have failed miserably. ASEAN will need to lead its organisation and downplay the rivalry, for the sake of its own leadership and regionalisation process.
This is the final of a two-part article. The first part of the article can read here.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.