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Eastern realities

Print edition : Oct 23, 2009 T+T-
in Singapore

THE first signs of new equations among the major East Asian powers are beginning to emerge although there is no certainty at all about the end result. In a non-partisan view, the United Nations served as an echo chamber for the new East Asian rumblings in the second half of September. This was indeed no surprise.

Japans new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, with his mantra of change, and United States President Barack Obama, a leader of change, were in New York. Chinas President Hu Jintao engaged them in their global deliberations on climate change and nuclear non-proliferation plus disarmament. And, with Obama sustaining his predecessors policy of deploying the U.S. as a resident power in East Asia, the dialogue was all practical politics. Hatoyamas interactions with the other two leaders were a reality check, eager as he is to change Japans status from that of a geostationary satellite of the U.S. At the same time, Hu and Obama, who had already met for summit diplomacy, sought to place the China-U.S. dialogue on a sustainable trajectory.

The global dimension of issues relating to nuclear arms was the focus of the first-ever summit of the U.N. Security Council on this multilateral theme. The summit on September 24 was attended by the highest-ranking leaders of all the five veto-empowered member-states, each a nuclear-armed power. Not lost on the other 10 participant-states and the highest executives of the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was a supreme irony. Japan, the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, jostled with the U.S., which carried out the assault in the Second World War, as advocates of nuclear disarmament. The surprise was not that Hatoyama called for genuine nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament Japans advocacy agenda in public diplomacy predates his recent advent at the helm in Tokyo but that Obama took the initiative for this Security Council summit, in the face of undying scepticism about the durability of any U.S. push for nuclear disarmament.

While the Security Council, led by Obama, adopted a categorical resolution on nuclear arms issues, there was no consensus on climate change in the U.N. General Assemblys summit on this global concern on September 22. The China-U.S. battle of wits on climate change issues is somewhat comparable to the Japan-U.S. gap, not necessarily a divisive one at the moment, in perceptions about the global agenda of nuclear disarmament.

In a sense, these two summits, seen in some East Asian quarters as no more than pleasant exercises in public diplomacy, were overshadowed by a follow-up event with a greater degree of practical relevance. This event, the Group of Twenty (G-20) Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the U.S., was attended by India as well.

India, though not generally counted as belonging to geographical East Asia, is a member of the relatively new geopolitical group known as the East Asia Summit (EAS). Of considerable relevance to the EAS forum is the G-20 consensus that the stabilising group, which cuts across the development divide, is now the global governing council on economic matters in all but name. From now on, the G-20 will take precedence in the global economic domain over the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialised countries, distinct from just the rich ones. Such a general East Asian perception about the G-20s new status does China and Japan proud, with India too getting noticed as a key player.

Behind the scenes, however, a general view across East Asia is that India was, by and large, marginalised at the U.N. this time. India is not even a non-permanent member of the Security Council now and obviously had no place at the summit table on nuclear arms issues on September 24. However, New Delhis low profile at the General Assembly summit on climate change on September 22, whatever the reason, was noticed in East Asia.

It is no longer a new factor on the East Asian scene that China will overtake Japan, at some point in time, as the worlds second largest economy. To that extent and because of Hatoyamas accent on reviving the recession-ravaged Japanese economy, the perceived new status of the G-20 is expected to gradually shift the centre of gravity of the global economy towards East Asia. However, the subtext of the Japan-China economic equation can complicate matters for the two countries unless they show statesmanship of a high order. Until Hatoyama came on the Tokyo scene, Japan was expected to remain concerned about the possibility of being overtaken by China in the economic domain.

In contrast, the new Japanese leader has already exuded a sense of political accommodativeness towards China as a rising power. To this extent, the G-20s rising profile may encourage Japan to pursue Hatoyamas East Asian economic agenda with a greater sense of purpose than before. The rider to this regional perspective is that he will need to navigate without political churlishness about Japan losing its current status as the only big global economic power in East Asia. The rider relates to the current erosion of the status of the G-8, where Japan has the unique privilege of being the only Asian economy that is a key player.

On balance, the new Japanese leaders recent proposals, including the possibility of an East Asian currency unit, are reflective of a constructive frame of mind for dialogue with China and others. As the G-20 begins to play a bigger global role, the issue of Chinas economic status will acquire political overtones. Some previous Japanese Prime Ministers were beginning to press the point that galloping China could no longer be deemed a developing economy for it to access the global or regional goodies meant exclusively for spurring national economic growth. In refreshing contrast, Hatoyama has so far displayed no political unease in engaging China as it is rather than as it should be.

The latest G-20 summitry, insofar as it may set a new economic tone for East Asia, has not brought such Japan-China sensitivities into focus in the public domain. In fact, Hu is seen to have played his cards in line with Chinas recent tendencies of not flexing its expanding economic muscle in a threatening fashion. After his talks with Hatoyama at the U.N. on September 21, Hu identified some issues in the history of Japan-China ties and the Taiwan question as two political concerns on the bilateral front. At the same time, he suggested that the two neighbours not take their eyes off the new opportunities in their economic engagement.

On climate change, Hu pledged that China will step up efforts to develop green economy, low-carbon economy and circular economy, and [also] enhance research-development-and-dissemination of climate-friendly technologies. Addressing the known reservations of the developed bloc, he called upon it to transfer technologies to the developing world. Political will to do so would represent a joint investment in the future of mankind, Hu emphasised.

Outlining the Hatoyama initiative on climate change issues, the new Japanese leader said he proposes to establish a framework to promote the transfer of low-carbon technologies which [however] ensures the protection of intellectual property rights. On the financing of such transfers, he suggested the creation of a one-stop facility under the U.N.s auspices.

Obamas participation in the climate summit did not, on balance, strike East Asian leaders and experts as an epochal sign of responsible leadership by the U.S. Of far greater relative importance to East Asia was his studied initiative of seeking to lead the international community towards a world without nuclear weapons. Piloting an unprecedented resolution in the Security Council, he urged the weaving of the story of a world that understands that no difference or division is worth destroying all that we have built and all that we love.

Beyond the political romanticism of the dream of a world free of nuclear weapons, East Asian leaders and opinion makers saw North Korea as a test case in the short run. While Iran is of equal or greater concern to the U.S. on nuclear arms issues, the now-stalled multilateral process of North Korean denuclearisation has broad implications for any new political-security order in East Asia. At stake is the question whether this region will become a China-centric political universe or a multipolar system that will give both India and Japan pride of place. To a lesser extent, a possibly reunified Korea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia and Russia are seen as likely candidates for nodal places in a multipolar East Asia.

Critical to all these potential scenarios is the future of the U.S.-China equation. Answering a question from this correspondent, Michael Yahuda, an expert on Chinas rise and the U.S. response to it, said that Obama had so far indicated a preference for eliciting Chinas cooperation in meeting current regional and global challenges. To this extent, the U.S. has not at this stage shown signs of wanting to carve out a new world order as such. Beyond such perceptions of China specialists, Hatoyamas rise in Japan prompts a poser: Can Beijing play off an increasingly China-friendly Japan against the U.S. in East Asia? Will the U.S. then feel tempted to co-opt India to help it face a powerful China? Or, will the latest mantra in the Obama-Hu dialogue, a cooperative and comprehensive relationship, determine the future of East Asia in this century?