Holding back the “America First” nationalism of the United States and the high-handed demonstration of force by China, while also maintaining regional stability and prosperity. The latest conference may have served as a venue for countries concerned to recognize once again how important this is.
The East Asia Summit (EAS) meeting, which consists of 18 countries including Japan, the United States, China, Russia and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was held in Bangkok. High on the agenda were how regional order and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region should be pursued.
The Indo-Pacific region refers to a vast area that stretches from the western coasts of the Americas, through Asia, to the eastern coast of Africa. It encompasses important sea-lanes, including those in the Pacific, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
At the meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized the importance of realizing “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” an idea that he has advocated since 2016. This is a scheme aimed at achieving economic growth within the region through free trade, by securing freedom of navigation on the basis of international law.
It has the objectives of holding in check China’s militarization of the South China Sea and its “Belt and Road Initiative,” a scheme to create an economic zone through its massive financing.
Abe said Japan will cooperate with all those countries who share its vision, apparently aimed at bringing China over to a rules-based order.
It is problematic that the United States, although in solidarity with Japan’s scheme, is lowering its presence in the region.
U.S. President Donald Trump was absent from the EAS meeting again, having not attended in any of the three years since he took office. Nor did U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the meeting last year, appear this time. It is undeniable that Washington has left the impression that it treats Asia lightly.
Although the United States maintains its security involvement in Asia from a viewpoint of curbing China, it prioritizes its own national interests in the area of trade, thus turning its back on multilateral negotiations. Washington should recognize the reality that China is increasing its influence by taking advantage of the U.S. absence.
During his talks with the ASEAN leaders, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in reference to the Code of Conduct designed to avoid maritime conflicts in the South China Sea, stressed that while excluding interference from non-regional countries, China and the ASEAN countries shall take control of negotiations. It is obvious that Beijing intends to craft a code of conduct in favor of itself, by blocking U.S. involvement in the talks.
ASEAN released in June its own vision of the Indo-Pacific, which emphasizes the centrality of Southeast Asian countries. They are probably cautious of a situation in which they would become embroiled in a hegemonic rivalry between the United States and China and be forced to choose one side or the other.
Other countries, such as India, Australia and South Korea, also advocate their own schemes that attach importance to the Indo-Pacific region, but they differ in degrees of commitment in dealing with China. It is essential for each country to share awareness of the relevant issues and to make efforts to increase the combined effect of these schemes.
Japan must take the lead in such endeavors and assume the role of binding the United States with the Indo-Pacific region.