Squaring the Japanese and Australia proposals for an East Asian and Asia Pacific Community: is America in or out?

Author: Joel Rathus, Adelaide University and Meiji University

At the fourth East Asian Summit, held on 25 October in Thailand, the leaders of Japan and Australia had the opportunity to air their ideas about the future form and function of East Asian regionalism.

As Acharya notes Australian PM Rudd and Japanese PM Hatoyama appear to have competing visions about how to re-order the region. But, at this stage, if only because both proposals share a level of deliberately in-built vagueness, it’s not easy to tell. Hatoyama, for example, seems ambivalent – or at least unsure – on what role the US ought to play in the region.

While Hatoyama is still unsure about membership, Rudd’s Asia-Pacific community signposted US participation from the outset. This is unlikely to be where it ends up. Indeed, there are already signs that the Japanese and Australian positions are beginning to merge.

In many ways this is only to be expected.

Japan and Australia have a record of diplomatic cooperation and joint leadership in regional institution-building. While that might not be the case this time round, there are some structural reasons [pdf] which suggest it likely.

Japan and Australia have common national interests in managing the relationship with China and the desire for a US presence in East Asia. China’s rising power recommends US involvement in Asia to both for similar reasons.

Yet the Japanese leadership is still ambivalent about US participation. What is likely to shift it on this?

For one thing, ASEAN is still the base on which regionalist projects have to be constructed — so the proposals from Australia and Japan will ultimately have to be mediated by ASEAN. Hatoyama’s rhetoric in the lead-up to the trilateral summit last month suggests that he believed that Japan might carry the day on the formation of an East Asia community. Lack of progress at the trilateral summit, made clear, if it needed to be, the continuing importance of ASEAN. As ASEAN invites the US into the region, via the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, Hatoyama may well decide to ‘go with the flow’.

Yet, as one ASEAN official has noted ASEAN’s support for US participation is split 50:50; with the archipelagic southeast states in favour and those bordering China more ambivalent. The split in ASEAN derives from China’s rising and positive influence in the region. China has pushed forward its credentials as regional leader – this year offering Southeast Asian states a US$10 billion China-ASEAN investment fund (chiefly for infrastructure building). These circumstances make ASEAN states less likely to push the US issue.

the second thing has to do with China. It is possible that China is backing away from a strong position on US participation. China’s Ambassador to ASEAN Xue HanQin (薛捍勤) is reported as saying that the US could be a participant in an East Asian Community. Whether this reflects a real change in Chinese policy is yet to be seen. Has China embraced the cynical strategy of sinking a proposal by endorsing it? Certainly Chinese foreign policy makers must be aware that a strong move to exclude the US might have exactly the opposite effect. This uncertainty on both sides has created a situation in which neither China nor Japan is willing to discuss the role of the US in East Asia, for fear of harming their bilateral political relationship.

Where does all this put Australia?

With ASEAN still divided on the issue of US involvement, and China-Japan circling it, Australian diplomacy will need to be active to pay off with the outcome Rudd wants. That could require some ‘double edged diplomacy’ — convincing Japan that ASEAN really does support US involvement and carrying ASEAN along with it. Australia has been able to play this role in the past, and may now have to do so again.

In the end, Japan’s and Australia’s positions on US participation may well be squared. What is less clear is in what institutional form that might be done best, leaving everyone confident in their own diplomatic victory.