Understanding Hatoyama’s East Asian Community Idea

Understanding Hatoyama’s East Asian Community idea

East Asia Forum

January 2010

Hatoyama’s plan for an East Asian Community, first mentioned in a September 2009 op-ed in the New York Times, is an interesting symbol of the split personality in Japanese foreign policy. Almost from the first, the idea raised hackles in both Beijing and in Washington, who view Japanese leadership and independence in the region warily for different reasons. In the article, Hatoyama tied together two arguments: that Japan needed to redress the imbalance in its relationship with the United States, and that Japan was an Asian power and should contribute to any discussion of regional architecture. The first statement raised hackles in Washington while the second raised hackles in Beijing. Naturally, Hatoyama’s point that Japan’s ‘proper place of being’ is as an Asian power which should shape the destiny of one of world’s fastest growing regions makes perfect sense from a Japanese point of view.

How can Japan’s sudden support for regional integration be explained?

Hatoyama’s plan can be seen in the light of three factors: Japanese history as an ‘Asian outsider’, Japan’s current situation, and the current situation of the United States. In dealing with the first, it should be remembered that modern Japanese history is essentially one of coming from a position of weakness in its relationship with China and Korea to a position of dominance during the 20th century using the power, tools and technology of the West. This has created in Japanese policy-makers a tendancy to view foreign policy as a bipolar choice between the West and Asia. Adding to this historical dilemma has been the fact that Japan’s security has depended directly or indirectly on Western states while its economic security has depended on Asian markets. Indeed, it is a facet of Japan’s modern identity that it has tried and often failed to straddle both worlds. Following its victory over Tsarist Russia in 1905, Japanese thinkers promoted Koa-ron (Asian-facing policies); while simultaneously developing strong security ties with Great Britain.

During the Cold War, these two choices were synthesised as the US became both a security guarantor for Japan as well as its biggest export market. Only after the end of the Cold War did Japan have to face the future with renewed uncertainty. Its economic relationship with the US had become a long-running battle over protection of its homemarket, while the loss of the Soviet threat in the North Pacific emptied the meaning from the security relationship. While the US-Japanese military and economic relationship was repaired and renewed, Japan also began to reconsider its relationship with the region. In 1993, Japanese diplomats helped midwife the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a security wing of ASEAN, and then in 1997-1998, Japan tried unsuccessfully  to create an Asian Monetary Fund to help deal with the Asian financial crisis. In all three instances, Tokyo realised that any chance of success depended on the acquiescence of either Beijing or Washington.

If history provides Japanese thinkers with the outlines of an Asian versus Western foreign policy, what pushed Hatoyama into supporting the former over the latter?

The obvious reason is the change of relative power that has taken place over the last decade between Japan, the US, and China. Japan is now speaking of lostdecades rather than a lost decade, and trying to balance a declining economic share of power in the region with an aging workforce. Its share of trade with ASEAN fell from 20.2 per cent in 1993 to just over 12 per cent in 2008, while conversely China’s share rose from 2.1 per cent to 11.3 per cent over the same time span. It is clear that China’s economic integration into the region is growing at a faster rate, while Japan’s is actually declining relative to China.

Hatoyama’s op-ed piece also talks of the end of the US-led globalism, spurred by the Iraq wars and financial crisis. Japan could keep its wagon hitched to the US, or it could begin to look to the rising star in the east. Since East Asia accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s GDP and is expected to reach 40 per cent by 2030, it has been clear what Hatoyama’s answer for Japan is. Furthermore, the sooner that Japan makes this move, the better since time only seems to favour China and hurt Japan.

But has Hatoyama moved Japan too soon? After all, this is not the first time that the US has been called a declining power. In the wake of Vietnam, Washington’s reputation was in tatters in the region, and more famously, Paul Kennedy predicted the end of US power in Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987, just before it reached its great ascent to lone superpower status.  As always with these arguments, time will tell who was on the right side of history.


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