Socialising East Asia

I attended a conference/meeting on APEC’s strategic architecture today (under Chatham House Rule so affiliations will not be revealed) which certainly revealed the complexity of all the various instruments in place or being proposed to forward economic, and broader forms of integration in the East Asia/Asia-Pacific region. The TransPacific Partnership negotiations which have been recently announced (which I personally think is a solid and practical proposal for those involved) was a serious topic of conversation. Overall the conference did not lead to a change in my views on the utility of APEC other than as a forum to check in with the US from time to time, and most certainly raised more questions than answers. Actually one presenter admitted that APEC’s, at least the Heads of Governments meetings,  major utility may well be that it is the only forum that the US president takes seriously. Apparently he has only missed it twice!

Nevertheless to be fair,  it was a very challenging 5 hours with a wide variety of views and opinions coming from the presenters.

The one thing that stood out for me, like a thorn, however, was the  general attitude of many in attendance towards the changes in Japanese government.

It seemed a number of the elite involved felt somewhat exasperated that A. Domestic politics and policy making was having an impact on Japan’s approach to Asia, and well, foreign policy, and B. That Japan had foreign policy interests of its own and was not strategically brain dead.

This was at the same time that many were demanding that the interests, specifically of ASEAN countries,  be put forward and centre in any regional configuration. There seemed to be some exasperation that Japan would actually put forward a concept of East Asia Integration that would privilege China, Japan and Korea as leaders in the area rather than just ASEAN and/or the US. There was a general sense that Japan’s growing interest in East Asia was, from a strategic leadership point of view (rather than say remaining as a benevolent cog in the wheel) was somewhat unwelcome.

One person talked about how ASEAN were primarily responsible for “socializing” Chinese bureaucrats when they became a “normal”  country with the ascension to the WTO. The thing that struck me is that Japan may have to go on a bit of socializing mission themselves – that whatever happens in the post-LDP world, Japan is a legitimate foreign policy player with rational self-interests to pursue in the area, no matter how unwelcome to the APEC/ASEAN elite, and that its interests are not quaint outgrowths of individual political machinations or quirky political beliefs. Perhaps only the Korean presenter understood this.

One person pretty much claimed Hatoyama was only putting forward a Japan view on Asia merely to be different from the LDP. Apparently that is how you can interpret “everything” the DPJ does. Except when that evil Ozawa gets involved.

What also struck me is how little anyone had tried to understand the broader context of the change of government – as if, Japan was going to go back to being in some benign shell, as soon as this weirdo Hatoyama chap was out of the way…..I think they may be a little bit surprised! Of course, given the US response to the new Japanese government over Futenma, I guess this kind of overreaction, to what should be viewed as a reasonably logical consequence of the development of Japanese politics, should not be surprising. I guess some of the wounds the DPJ has inflicted upon itself has regrettably not lessened the sense that Japanese politics/politicians need not be taken seriously.


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