Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Japan´s interest in an Asian community
Asahi Shimbun - April 1st 2007

The European Union has just celebrated its 50th birthday, or rather the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome which established the first, small, club of six countries that has now grown to a membership of 27 European nations. Visiting India recently, on the 60th anniversary of another gathering, organised by that country´s first prime minister, Nehru, to begin the process of friendship and collaboration between Asian countries, I couldn´t help thinking about that old, old question: will there ever be anything in Asia like the European Union?

            Nehru´s "Asian Relations" conference, in March 1947, could never have launched such a thing. Asia was then in post-war turmoil, with many countries still in the throes of civil war or yet to achieve independence. It also revealed a basic divide between Asia´s two giants, India and China, about how Asian collaboration might occur and, most important, who should lead it. And this was even before Mao´s Communists had taken power in China in 1949.

            Now, at least Asia has stability and it has the beginnings of institutions that could be the basis of a European-style community. The East Asia Summit, formed two years ago in Kuala Lumpur, is the latest and broadest such framework. Everyone—India, China, Japan, the South-East Asian nations—says that they want a community to be built. But do they, really?

            Discussions with senior officials and strategic thinkers in India have made me think a little differently about this question. I used to assume it was chiefly a matter of time and, perhaps, of political systems. Time, before Asian governments became accustomed to collaboration and negotiation with one another, given the widely differing states of economic development across the region; political systems, because of the difficulty of achieving trust between communist regimes and democratic ones.

            Now, I think that it remains true that time and politics are the issues, but in a different way from how I had imagined it. The real blockage is likely to be one of pure national power and national interests. Countries are likely to make the commitments necessary for a community to be formed when they think it is in their national interest to do so. Asia´s two giants, China and India, are both experiencing rapid economic growth and, with it, a transformation of their international status and of their perceptions of themselves.

            Countries in such a situation are likely to ask themselves, either consciously or subconsciously: "Will it be better for my country if we make commitments soon, or if we wait until much later, by which time we will be much more powerful?´´ In the case of China and India, the answer looks obvious: it would be better to wait, at least if you are confident that your economic growth is going to remain rapid. Later, you will be in a better position to dictate the terms by which a community is formed.

            For Japan, on the other hand, and for the South-East Asian countries, the answer is the opposite. It would be better to get things started sooner, as their strength relative to China and India is expected to decline as the years go past.

            So there is a basic difference of interest between the major countries that would have to take the initiative in launching a true Asian  community. Of course, this does not make it impossible that some progress can be made. Even those who think their countries are going to get stronger may be willing to take part in some modest forms of collaboration, as long as it does not commit them to rules and practices that will be hard to change in future. The European Union shows clearly that because it is hard for large numbers of countries to reach agreement, it is necessary to make it even harder to change things once an agreement has been reached.

            So what should Japan do? My conclusion follows, in fact, from a slight modification to the simple view I presented earlier. I said that both India and China think that they will get much stronger in coming decades, and so have an interest in waiting before agreeing to an Asian community. One very senior official in India´s foreign ministry expressed this to me quite nicely: "We both think that the future belongs to us," he said. "But we can´t both be right."

            There lies the clue to my modification. India remains less confident of its future strength than China does. So it may be persuadable to make commitments sooner than China would be. Thus the best policy for Japan is to reinforce the course it is already following: to use India as an ally in getting the process of community-building begun. That way, China might also be forced to join. Membership of the East Asia Summit for India was already a good start, but it is not enough. Japan should be pushing for something deeper, more profound, and more urgently.

            At present, it is moving slowly, amid talk about "values-based diplomacy" and an "arc of freedom and prosperity". That is a mistake, in my view. It is not very convincing, and it risks alienating those countries in South-East Asia that do not fully share democratic values as well, of course, risking alienating China. If a community is to be built, with rules and commitments that succeed in controlling the ambitions and rivalries among Asia´s new great powers, then Japan will not just need India as an ally. It needs the South-East Asians too. And it needs to move faster. I don´t want to wait too long before celebrating the birthday of the Asian Community.


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