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Japan’s “East Asian Community” and Its Impact on America’s Interests

13 October 2009

by Daniel Michaeli

Today’s excellent Foreign Policy article by Dan Sneider and Richard Katz attempts to make sense of Japanese PM Hatoyama’s concept of an “East Asian Community.” This is an article well worth reading. The main argument: just because Japan is looking more towards Asia does not mean that Japan is distancing itself from the United States. Indeed, the U.S. has encouraged Japan to take on a more assertive regional profile in the past. The region is changing, and it is to be expected that the U.S.-Japan alliance will need to change as well.

But Sneider is overly dismissive of some important trends that do materially affect U.S. interests.

For one thing, Japan is pursuing an ambitious trilateral free trade agreement with China and Korea, to be preceded by a trilateral investment agreement. This idea gained some traction during this weekend’s trilateral China-Japan-Korea meeting. One gauge of its seriousness is the fact that China is eager to take credit for the original idea.

Unlike agreements the United States signs, like NAFTA and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, most preferential trade agreements signed in Asia do not meet World Trade Organization standards. A trilateral agreement is not likely to meet those standards either, and they will therefore harm U.S. economic competitiveness in the region.

Even more worrying is why Japan is pursuing regional engagement. Sneider mentions the most problematic reason without any comment at all:

Nor can Tokyo rely solely on the U.S.-Japan security alliance to counter any Chinese bid for regional hegemony. On the contrary, the greater fear in Tokyo is that the United States will abandon Japan by forming a U.S.-China “Group of Two,” relegating Japan to second-level status in the region. In the DPJ’s view, Japan needs to draw China into broader regional engagement instead.

This gets to the crux of the issue. Japan is no longer confident in the U.S. ability to secure its regional interests in the long run, and it is pursuing a web of regional initiatives in an effort to find ways of compensating. (In particular, Japan is acting on the belief that incorporating China into regional architectures will moderate its behavior. Japan may not be right.)

The United States should take the East Asian Community idea seriously because it will affect our economic interests. But we also ought to step back and consider whether we can’t find a way to assuage some of Japan’s concerns about the alliance, which could dampen Japan’s enthusiasm for regional arrangements that affect us negatively.

We can begin by explicitly tossing out the idea of a U.S.-China “G-2,” which causes anxiety for leaders in Tokyo, Seoul, Delhi, and across Europe. Ultimately, we want to prove that we will be in the region to protect Japan, whether now or a hundred years from now. So we have to ask ourselves, and the Japanese: what would it take to prove that?

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