Japan and the new wave of regionalism in Asia

Author: Mie Oba, TUS

Since the end of the 2000s, a new era for regional cooperation has been unfolding in Asia. China’s ascent as a regional leader, the advent of mega FTAs and the changing presence of India have driven this change. But what does this new environment mean for Japan, and how will it shape the future of the region?Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walks past Chinese President Xi Jinping during the 2014 APEC Summit in Beijing. (Photo: AAP)

China began to present its own specific regional vision in Asia when Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in October 2013. When the AIIB agreement was signed at the end of 2015, almost all Asian countries and several Western countries joined as founding members. Like the AIIB, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative also reflects China’s vision for cooperation in Asia.

China’s new regionalism is not limited to economic cooperation. In a May 2014 speech, Xi outlined a new perspective on regional security, insisting that ‘it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia’. This perspective stresses the necessity of China’s leadership in building a new Asian security structure.

In recent years, multiple efforts to promote regional economic integration have been advanced. Mega FTAs like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have become increasingly significant. The TPP, which has been called the first ‘21st-century trade agreement’, not only accomplishes comprehensive trade liberalisation, but sets out new economic rules for the Asia Pacific region, affecting trade in services, investment, intellectual property rights, procurement and competition.

TPP negotiations were concluded in October 2015 and the agreement was signed in early February. Conversely, the policymakers who promoted RCEP negotiation decided to postpone the conclusion of negotiations for one year from November 2015, and are trying to set the modalities of the RCEP.

RCEP is an effort to promote ASEAN-centred regional economic integration. Compared to the TPP, RCEP emphasises the importance of economic developmental cooperation in the region. Some analyses tend to characterise the TPP and RCEP as reflecting a confrontation or competition between the United States and China for hegemony in Asia. But this seems to be an oversimplification.

The economic integration efforts of these mega FTAs are so complex that neither the United States nor China have been able to use them easily as diplomatic tools. In a world where all countries are intertwined in the context of globalisation, the rivalry between China and the United States contains elements of both competition and cooperation.

The presence of India has been another remarkable feature of Asian regionalism in recent years. Some countries in the Asia Pacific and East Asia have begun to expect India to play a role in deterring China. India’s interests in strengthening ties with East Asian countries strategically and economically brought about the rise of a new regional concept — the Indo-Pacific.

There are no regional institutions based on the idea of the Indo-Pacific yet, but India has already joined several significant regional frameworks in East Asia, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus. And India’s influence on RCEP negotiations should not be ignored. How the increasing presence of India will affect the development of regionalism in Asia is still unclear, but India has undoubtedly become one of the key players in the regional politics of East Asia.

What picture do these new developments paint of Asia’s regional structure? For now, it can be said that the multi-layered regional structure in East Asia will become more complex than ever before. The complicated power rivalries between the United States and China will affect the prospects of the region. But other countries like Japan, Australia, the ASEAN countries and India are not just followers of the great powers. Their roles in promoting regional dialogue and cooperation also contribute to this new picture of the regional structure.

Among the regional players in East Asia, Japan’s current diplomatic stance is clear: it is taking a pro-US stance. It cannot be denied that the US–Japan alliance is an important tool for Japan’s diplomacy in maintaining and promoting a favourable regional and global international order for itself. But because of its strong pro-US stance and anxiety about the rise of China, Japanese policymakers sometimes underestimate the ‘balancing’ strategy of the ASEAN countries and Australia. This strategy seeks to retain multidirectional diplomacy towards all great powers.

How to promote the ‘soft landing’ of a rising China has been a serious issue for East Asia and the Asia Pacific. All of these countries are watching China’s behaviour. But this does not mean that they can easily come together to contain or counter China — or that all countries want to. Japan is presently seeking to improve its relations with China and has made some progress since 2015. For Japan, multilateral institutions should not just be used to deal with a rising China, but also to help create a more peaceful and stable regional order.

Mie Oba is Professor of International Relations at the Tokyo University of Science.

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