The idea of a relaunch of the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) could inflame some in the United States, but it could augur well for Southeast Asia, which is in need of a boost.
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The idea could also be a good thing for both Japan and China. However, the biggest challenge for the formation of the EAEC is how Tokyo and Beijing tie their own loose ends.
In an editorial in January, the Japan Times said the two countries should make serious efforts in both economic and political fields to remove obstacles between them.
The newspaper dissected their political and economic relationship, highlighting the fact that Tokyo’s nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in 2012 remains a thorny issue.
Japanese investments in China, which hit a peak that year, subsequently dropped sharply. But in recent months, the situation has reversed and there are signs that a revival in the economic relationship is underway.
Nevertheless, bilateral ties continued to be strained, perhaps due to the national interests of both nations.
Japan entered the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the US in a bid to counter China’s economic rise. It rejected calls to participate in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank while it simply ignored the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The EAEC had the original aim of forging an integrated East Asia, joining Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia in regional unity.
It is not an easy task given the tug-of-war between the two. But this will be on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s agenda in the coming months.
The idea of the creation of the EAEC was mooted by Mr Mahathir decades ago, but it fizzled out since the drive was not there amid opposition and rejections from potential players. The main opposition came from Japan.
When the EAEC was first mooted, it was a totally new idea, a new way of looking into regional integration. Its reinvention in 2018 will definitely have its good, but also its ugly sides.
The idea of a relaunch of the caucus comes once again from Mr Mahathir himself. Of significance is the fact that he made his plan public during a recent trip to Japan.
It is apparent that this idea of the revival of the EAEC has one major aim: The rebalancing of the lopsided geopolitical game in Southeast Asia.
The region is under pressure from the South China Sea conflict and division within Asean on how to handle China’s rise. After a failed attempt to get the US to be on board Asean to fend-off China’s rise, President Donald Trump came with even more destructive methods.
His rejection of former President Barack Obama’s famous ‘American Pivot’ and his trashing of the TPP jolted Southeast Asia. As a result, it deepened the scission within Asean. Hence, Mr Mahathir’s idea of a unified regional forum or caucus that may, at last, bring both Japan and China to sit together to plan the region’s future.
Mr Mahathir is aware that for the EAEC to be relevant, he has to get both Japan and China on board.
The time is ripe, he said at a media briefing, and he may be right. The trade war, if we can call that, launched by Mr Trump has ruffled feathers in Japan and mitigated spats between Beijing and Tokyo.
In April, Xinhua reported that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said both sides should work together to further improve bilateral ties and expand cooperation.
In respect to this, it is interesting to note that Mr Wang raised several issues where China and Japan would cooperate, citing the need to enhance communication and coordination to oppose trade protectionism, safeguard the global free trade system centred on the World Trade Organization (WTO), and help create an open world economy.
Japan has also recently agreed, in principle, to look into BRI.
Though Mr Mahathir made no secret that roping China in is his exact intention, there is no guarantee the other potential members will play the game.
There is the possibility the other players, some members of Asean, will go back to their original preoccupations: How to tame and contain an awakened giant?
Mr Mahathir made it clear: China is ready, it is now a rich country compared to a few decades ago.
Afterall, China has grown from a sleeping giant to a more aggressive and hungry one.
But in a world where the political rhetoric has for too often superseded the economic interests of many, can Mr Mahathir make the EAEC a reality?
The very reason the EAEC did not concretise before Mr Mahathir left office following his resignation in 2003 as prime minister of Malaysia, is that Japan, among other participants, did not agree with its establishment.
Several analysts observed that Japan was lukewarm towards the EAEC, while it was supportive of Asean+3.
However, the tides are changing. Mr Trump is here and he has done enough damage to both the Japanese and the Chinese for these nations to consider looking ‘westward’.
Though Japan took the lead from the US after the shredding of the famous ‘American Pivot’ and the US’s retreat from the TPP, China’s opening-up is also helping.
The American shift has strengthened China’s push in the region, but it has also left the door wide open for countries like Malaysia to navigate with greater freedom in their choice of global partners.
Alas, there are still several impediments on the path to the creation of the caucus.
There is the role that Australia would want to play in such a forum, and uncertainties on whether the other members of Asean would want to play second fiddle.
The 10-member association is a divided lot, with many countries thinking of their own national interest and clashing over some important issues.
In any case, for the EAEC to be successful and impact the region, Asean member states should take a leaf from recent Japan-China cooperation.
While their relations is still fraught with divisions and disagreements, the two nations are forging new ties in the face of even greater dangers coming our way with potential global consequences.
And this is surely what Mr Mahathir wants from his peers in the region: Total cooperation to achieve an old dream.