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Published:November 11th, 2009 13:59 EST
President Obama Visits Japan Part 2 (East Asian Community Plan)

President Obama Visits Japan Part 2 (East Asian Community Plan)

By Geoff Dean

President Obama Visits Japan Part 1 (The Futenma Base Issue)

In Part 1, I looked into the question of the relocation of Futenma Air Base (US Marine Corps) on Okinawa and how that might affect the US relationship with Japan. And now, in classic California gubernatorial style, "I`m back!" (I just hope this part 2 is better than most of the big screen versions!)

 Prime Minister surprised a lot of observers here and around the world when he recently announced a plan to develop an "East Asian Community" modeled on the EU, including at some point, a regional FTA, visa-free travel, and possibly a unified currency. In the early stages, the "community" would consist of Japan, South Korea, and China, although it might come to include the nations of ASEAN and/or some other Asian nations at some point.

 Not surprisingly, at such an early stage, questions like Taiwan, Tibet, the disputed territories and islands between the member nations (Takeshima/Tokdo claimed by both Japan and South Korea, the Senkaku/Diayoutai chain claimed by Japan, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines, etc.), and other potential points of friction (like the Dalai Lama`s frequent visits to Japan) were put aside for the moment and the governments of both South Korea and China expressed "interest" in the proposal and cautious optimism while reckoning that implementation of the plan might take decades.

 On the surface, an improvement in relations between Japan and China would seem to be highly positive for the US as well as would a new mechanism for maintaining peaceful relations in East Asia. It could even lead to an eventual reduction in the US military presence in Japan and South Korea. And yet the idea was greeted with only lukewarm praise and some outright disdain by many pundits on both sides of the Pacific.

 According to a senior Foreign Ministry official, as quoted in the Japan Times, "the only people making a fuss" about the plan "are Asia specialists in Washington" due to "puzzlement" and a lack of understanding of the policy. It is not surprising that the official would be keen to tamp down any "fuss" but it is not quite that simple.

 While supporting the basic policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as the President, himself, have hinted at concern that this may be a way of excluding the US from the region. Others have been more forthright in this line of thinking, seeing the grouping as aimed at the US and pointedly excluding a key player in Asia. It could even lead to a call by Japan for all US bases to be removed and/or a downgrading of the economic relationship, according to some.

 I, for one, don`t know if the bloc was suggested as an alternative to US engagement in the region, although Japan is hardly ready to "go it alone", security-wise or otherwise. It may be something of a counter balance to the US relationship but after the behavior of the Bush Administration, running roughshod over Japanese objections to the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while doing nothing to push for progress on the North Korean abduction issue, it may well be wise to hedge one`s bets. Either way, including the US in an East Asian Community, would make the plan a non-starter, "dead on arrival" as Senate Republicans might put it.

 A "multilateral" President Obama can hardly complain of a more "multilateral" Japan. Still, this is one more sign that Japan may be becoming increasingly independent of the US and ready to act on its own and look out for its own interests. President Obama has opened Pandora`s Box (or in Japan, Urashima Taro`s treasure box) and Prime Minister Hatoyama has turned every assumption on its head. Things will not go back to the way they were. So how will they proceed? If I knew that, I would be a seer and not a writer (my wife would say I`m neither but who`s kvetching?)