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Coming Together
A growing sense of regionalism from Northeast Asia

The author is honorary secretary of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. He recently had consultations with think-tanks in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul.

While the Korean summit made headlines, probably as important is a new triangular rapprochement fast taking place among the three main protagonists of Northeast Asia. The three linkages are Sino-South Korean, South Korean-Japanese and Sino-Japanese. The warming is the result of converging internal and external factors — the prospect of Korean reunification, post-Asian Crisis influences, ASEAN's promotion of East Asian regionalism, the assertiveness of American policy in Asia, and a redefinition of China's and Japan's roles in the 2lst century.

The historic June summit in Pyongyang has clearly brought an air of rapprochement to Northeast Asia. Its five-point joint declaration on reconciliation and peace promised large-scale reunions of separated families by August 15 and establishment of a Seoul-Pyongyang hotline, major signs of a political breakthrough. China played a key role in the summit's success. In March, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in Pyongyang encouraged the North Koreans to open up to the world, while President Jiang Zemin hosted Kim Jong Il in Beijing a week before the summit.

Seoul realized that China's support was primordial in softening the Pyongyang regime and prodding it toward compromise and reason. Much of President Kim Dae Jung's political credibility and legacy (notably his bold "Sunshine Policy" on the North) depends largely on Beijing as intermediary and therefore relations between the two will keep improving. Poised to integrate with the region, North Korea is seeking China's guidance even more as it joins the ASEAN Regional Forum, hosts Russia's president and embarks on normalization talks with Tokyo. Hence China has emerged as the big power for the Koreas and Japan.

Japan and South Korea have also found new reasons to come together. The Asian Crisis saw Tokyo rush to assist a much-humbled Korea, but the action was also in the interests of Japan, mired in its own crisis since the early 1990s. Both countries are adapting to a brave new world of globalization and the digital New Economy. They see their future and the region's intertwined, a basic lesson learned from the Crisis. In three phases since 1998, Seoul has lifted a longtime ban on most Japanese films, video games and pop music. The two, who will co-organize football's 2002 World Cup, are also negotiating a free trade agreement.

Although China-Japan relations are still tenuous and the most difficult to patch up, a new raison d'etre for rapprochement is dawning there too. Relations are stuck in an emotional past, as shown by Jiang's last official visit to Tokyo in late 1998 when the issue of Japanese apologies for past atrocities led to a diplomatic impasse. Although the Crisis left a sense of mutual vulnerability and a greater need for interdependency, suspicions of each other's roles in the region still exist, as exemplified by the theater missile defense (TMD) debate and the Taiwan issue. But curiously, the key to Sino-Japanese rapprochement may lie in Washington's policy in Asia.

Perceived to be brash, even arrogant, U.S. policy toward Japan may push it into a fundamental reassessment of relations between the two. Issues that could put distance between them: continuous trade frictions, American reservations in weakening a surging yen which is detrimental to a sustainable Japanese recovery, U.S. resistance to the concept of a Japan-led Asian Monetary Fund, and the need for Japan's "Third Opening" (as contained in the Okuda Report) instead of systematically hiding under the American security umbrella. Furthermore, Japan sees the ongoing spat between the two powers in the Asian Development Bank as a U.S. attempt to constrain its leadership role in Asia.

China, which is critical of American hegemonism yet very dependent on U.S. technology and capital, theoretically has every reason to encourage the Tokyo-Washington rift so as to enhance its own emerging superpower status. There are timid signs of a certain rapprochement between the two Asian giants. Beijing has been fully appreciative of Tokyo's unequivocal support for its entry to the World Trade Organization, and Japan is thankful for Chinese support in the "regional currency swap mechanism" adopted in Chiang Mai recently.

A much larger game is in the making — the concept of East Asian regionalism. ASEAN, in the aftermath of the Crisis and realizing its institutional and geopolitical weaknesses, believes the region will be stronger if the three northern powers can be brought into the picture. Some 10 years after the Mahathir-inspired East Asian Economic Caucus failed, the ASEAN+3 concept is making headway, championed by ASEAN. Its leaders and those of China, Japan and South Korea now meet after the annual ASEAN summits and their foreign ministers also consult annually. The ASEAN+3 finance ministers met recently in Chiang Mai, and the economic ministers in Yangon as if to send a signal of defiance to the West. Hence ASEAN's future may depend on rapprochement in Northeast Asia.

Clearly, triangular rapprochement is creating a greater feeling of regionalism in the Northeast, which in turn is bolstering a nascent East Asian sense of community.

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