Beijing-Tokyo disputes affects Asean

The intensifying hostility between China and Japan and the increasing mutual distrust between their people will have serious ramifications on ASEAN.

For the past three decades, the two Asian giants' stable relations have helped generate huge volumes of trade and investment and propelled the region's economic progress. So if the current trend in East Asia continues, ASEAN's ambitious plan to build a community of 630 million people with a single production base will suffer.

A recent survey conducted by China Daily and Genron NPO, a Japanese think tank, shows an unhealthy trend of growing mutual distrust among Chinese and Japanese. It showed that 92.8 per cent of the Chinese polled disliked Japan - up from 64.8 per cent last year - while 90.1 per cent of the Japanese had the same feeling toward China, up from 84.3 per cent in 2012.

Their attitude, fuelled by growing nationalist sentiments on both sides, could be attributed to the China-Japan stand-off over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and other historical issues. The Yasukuni commemoration last week further strained the relationship.

With no resolution to island dispute in sight, the efforts of ASEAN to create a more encompassing community with three East Asian countries - China, Japan and Republic of Korea (ASEAN+3) - will be hampered. The negotiation over ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership has just begun and could be delayed.

The China-Japan row has already caused a policy dilemma for ASEAN and driven a wedge among its member states. In the past, ASEAN took for granted that China-Japan differences were temporary and could be resolved because of the interdependence of their economies to a certain extent. Both countries also wanted peaceful a regional environment to ensure their economic success.

Of late, however, this pattern has changed. Increased nationalism and domestic dynamics have compelled the Chinese and Japanese governments to toughen their respective positions.

ASEAN has a long history of dealing with major powers, especially with the United States and China during the Cold War. But in the case of China and Japan, ASEAN is facing a Catch-22 situation. Both countries have been wooing ASEAN vigorously and both are major trading partners of ASEAN and important players in nearly all ASEAN-led programs.

After being sworn in as Japanese prime minister for the second time, Shinzo Abe has tried to consolidate Japan-ASEAN relations, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Over the past four decades, Japan's pacifist policies have concentrated mainly on economic development and building relations with Southeast Asian countries. But unlike other Japanese leaders of the post-war era, Abe is eager to transform the mainly economic-oriented relations into multifaceted cooperation with security and strategic elements, especially maritime security cooperation, with ASEAN member countries.

ASEAN member states have responded differently to Japan's move. Since Vietnam and the Philippines both have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea they are more supportive of Japan's initiative to strengthen maritime security. The Philippines has been more enthusiastic, though. Other ASEAN member states have been cautious to Japan's overtures, avoiding taking sides.

For instance, Thailand has ignored Japan's initiative, fearing it would harm its relations with China, although Thailand and Japan first discussed this issue way back in 1988 and the plan was aborted because of lack of regional support. Japan's renewed interest in maritime security has put Thailand in an awkward position given the strengthening of Beijing-Bangkok friendship.

Chinese and Japanese leaders have visited key ASEAN cities three times in the past six months, which is unprecedented in regional shuttle diplomacy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated during his trips that ASEAN was and would remain a top priority in China's foreign policy. Given his experience in dealing with ASEAN since 2002, Wang managed to improve relations with ASEAN after the bumpy progress on drafting the Code on Conduct in the South China Sea.

Recently, the two sides agreed to proceed with the long-awaited process. And at the end of this month, Beijing will host a special China-ASEAN ministerial meeting to commemorate their 10th anniversary as strategic partners, which could suggest the course of their future relations.

Gone are the days when ASEAN served as a fulcrum for major powers to converge to the region as they could not do it on their own. ASEAN's strength has always been its policy of "enemy to none but friend to all". Of late, the growing tension and polarisation in East Asia has gradually narrowed the once impeccable niche diplomatic space of ASEAN. What ASEAN policymakers decide now will determine the grouping's future playing field vis-à-vis their powerful dialogue partners, that is, China and Japan.

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