Experts Say East Asia Dangerous but Important


Date: 12-07-2006

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HONOLULU (Dec. 7) – East Asia is one of the most dangerous areas of the world, according to former United States Ambassador to China J. Stapleton Roy. Currently chairman of the United States Asia Pacific Council (USAPC) and managing director of Kissinger Associates, the former U.S. envoy made the observation during opening remarks at the USAPC’s fourth annual conference in Washington, D.C. last week (Nov. 30). He added the danger lies in regional issues that could provoke a great power confrontation.

But regional security was not the only subject up for discussion at the Washington conference. The group of distinguished academics, legislators, diplomats and business leaders also turned their attention to East Asia’s changing trade and investment scene, regional political relations, and domestic U.S. politics.

The USAPC is a partnership formed by the East-West Center and the U.S. Department of State comprised of Americans who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of the U.S. relationship with Asian and Pacific nations.

Citing the latest findings of the Pew Global Attitudes Project conducted in China, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia and the United States, Roy warned of the possibility of rising tensions due to the complexity of the regional dynamics. He pointed out that the recent Pew poll showed seven in 10 Japanese express an unfavorable view of China and an equal number of Chinese dislike Japan. The poll also found that a large majority of those in Japan, Russia, and India see China’s growing military capability as a threatening trend … a solid majority of Indians polled believe China will replace the United States as a regional power in 10 years.

But, Roy noted a dichotomy in the differing attitudes. He pointed out both Japan and Russia have historic reasons for worrying about China’s rise, but at the same time both are highly conscious of the benefits they derive from China’s economic growth. Roy credited Japan’s new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, for attempting to bring a different attitude toward leadership. He pointed to Abe’s trips to Beijing and Seoul as a diplomacy that could prevent regional rivalries from escalating into conflict.

Professor Leonard Schoppa of the University of Virginia, however, worried about the major challenges facing Abe as he tries to lead Japan toward becoming a “normal” nation. Schoppa said the visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine by Abe’s predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had enflamed sentiments in Japan, China, and South Korea. Schoppa warned that Abe will face tough challenges to dampen what he sees as rising Japanese populist attitudes, while at the same time not further aggravating relations with Asian countries with long wartime memories.

Another possible flashpoint, trade, drew differences of opinion.

Dr. C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, expressed support for the concept of a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), something the APEC leaders at their Nov. 18 summit in Hanoi commissioned a study. Bergsten argued that an FTAAP would bring under one umbrella the “spaghetti bowl” of Free Trade Agreements (FTA) that have been concluded or are under negotiation. He pointed out such an agreement would help restart the stalled World Trade Organization talks and foster “integration rather than disintegration” of the Asia Pacific region.

However, according to Dr. Masahiro Kawai, head of the Asian Development Bank’s Office of Regional Economic Integration, that would be like putting the cart before the horse. Kawai argued the nations of East Asia should consolidate themselves economically before pursuing a FTAAP-type arrangement. He pointed out that the nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were adamant that ASEAN members undertake their own economic integration. Kawai even questioned the feasibility of a region-wide trade accord noting the problems in concluding the bilateral China-U.S. agreement.

Addressing an old refrain, Roy said the United States has not been paying adequate attention to economic, political, security, and attitudinal trends in Asia. He noted that in the past five years the countries of East Asia have been actively engaged in detailed, constructive discussions about community building, but the United States has not been a part of this intellectual process owing to its preoccupation with developments in the Middle East.

Boeing International’s vice president for international government relations, Stanley O. Roth, agreed with Roy. The Boeing executive noted that while U.S. bilateral relations with nations in the region are good -- he pointed to relations with China and India as examples – he added “the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts.” Roth said many Asian nations perceive the U.S. to be disinterested in developments in the region due to a preoccupation with the Middle East, and the war on terror. Roth also pointed that some Asian powers are starting to step into the perceived void. He noted China’s rising diplomatic star as host to the Six Party Talks aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear threat and that India has been actively engaging East Asian nations on issues of interest such as safe passage through the Malacca Strait.

Amb. Roy said it is important for the U.S. to be engaged in the East Asia community-building dialogue now, while it is still a work in progress. “Things could jell (in East Asia) before the Untied States realizes what has happened.” He added that any angry reaction by Washington to finding itself excluded from an East Asian arrangement would invariably create even more problems for the U.S. in the region.

Roy stressed that the U.S. must keep an open mind about what kind of security and economic arrangements and regional architecture would best serve East Asia. He added U.S. engagement in East Asia is important if it is aimed at reducing mistrust and enhancing the prospects for peace.

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