The regional scenario of inter-state relations is the result of clear trends: the continuing rise of China, the diplomatic activism of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and America’s current economic decline.

The dawn of 2010 has brought with it expectations of a greater degree of economic cooperation among the politically diverse states of East Asia. In realpolitik terms, the dominant role of the United States — or as its critics say, its domineering presence in East Asia — may be just beginning to fade. Emerging already are political signs that a new ecosystem of inter-state ties is slowly evolving in the region.

A massive free trade area, covering China and the nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), came into being on New Year’s Day. China is widely tipped to occupy the central position, or more precisely, play a critical role in, interactions among the East Asian states. Such a scenario is the result of three clear trends, two of them of Asian origin. The rapid and continuing rise of China is matched, as a parallel Asian trend, by the diplomatic activism of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Of direct relevance to this situation is the non-Asian trend of America’s ongoing economic decline on the global stage. A full or substantial reversal of this decline may cast doubts on the fade-out of the U.S. in East Asia.

Political leaders and pundits of East Asia are, therefore, hedging their bets. Mr. Hatoyama is just beginning to set the ball rolling for a potential end-game for an American departure from East Asia. He wants the U.S. to wind down military activities at its bases in Japan. His compelling political wish is to re-link Japan with the rest of East Asia, as a normal country this time and not as an imperial power as in the past. But Washington is making clear its aversion to being pushed around, even if only on the turf of ideas. As a result, there is no political roadmap of East Asia without the U.S., as of now.

Despite such nuances, the signs of an East Asian ecosystem of inter-state relations cannot be missed. Any such system should not be mistaken for a new East Asian order in the conventional political sense. Often, a new global or regional order is the result of proactive efforts by a country or a group of powers for a dominant role in the relevant theatre. In contrast, an ecosystem of inter-state ties is the result of evolution of political and economic trends in a region or on the global stage, as the case might be.

Today, even as East Asia shows signs of evolving into a pan-regional ecosystem of inter-state relations, China has not staked claim to being the top leader. This is best understood in the changing context of East Asian regionalism which is currently driven by ASEAN. The East Asia Summit (EAS) consists of the 10-nation ASEAN as the “driving force,” besides China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

Pan-regional economic cooperation in East Asia is at present more vibrant in the ASEAN+3 grouping rather than in the larger EAS forum. China, Japan, and South Korea are ASEAN’s +3 partners. The former ASEAN Secretary-General, Rodolfo Severino, says the ASEAN+3 grouping has attained, by now, a lot of “solidity” as an economic force.

Mr. Severino sees Mr. Hatoyama’s idea of an East Asian Community as very much a parlour game still. Responding to questions, he said neither Japan nor China may be willing, as of now, to let the other be the leader of any such new community. The existing ASEAN+3 grouping may stay the course, with the 10-nation Association remaining in the driver’s seat. Mr. Severino is of the view that the present dispensation suits China admirably. “China has influence across East Asia without actually appearing to be influential.”

The former top mandarin of the intricate ASEAN network is not alone in believing that China is “having the best of both worlds” — influence without its odium. In a wider perspective, ASEAN’s relevance to East Asia may be heightened by an anticipated economic development in 2010. The Chiang Mai Initiative of the ASEAN+3 grouping will be enlarged to provide greater liquidity-support to member-countries during financial crises.

On the economic turf of this initiative, China’s influence cannot be eclipsed by ASEAN’s usual role as a convener in East Asian affairs, say other experts. This is especially so given the general assessment that China’s economy will surpass Japan’s in 2010. At the moment, as the world’s second largest economy Japan’s contributions to the Chiang Mai Initiative are as important as China’s.

The relative roles of Beijing and Tokyo will come under greater focus from now, especially because of Mr. Hatoyama’s positive view of China’s rise. Relevant to this equation is a studied comment by Martin Jacques in his 2009 treatise titled ‘When China Rules the World.’ Japan, in his view, “will ultimately be obliged to accept China’s leadership of East Asia.” According to him, this scenario is inevitable “on the assumption that China’s rapid [economic] growth continues” well into the future.

Beijing’s future profile is widely seen in political terms too. Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistani expert, sees China as a South Asian power as well. Already most South Asian countries welcome such a Chinese profile.

India’s role

A logical converse question in this context is whether India can hope to enlarge its geopolitical footprint in East Asia. New Delhi’s free trade agreement with ASEAN went into effect on New Year’s Day — as also its free trade pact with South Korea. But there is no move by ASEAN to give India a status similar to that of the +3 countries. And, not known is Mr. Hatoyama’s thinking on a poser by this journalist and perhaps also others: Can China, India, and Japan form an Asian concert of powers?

China is not aggressively asserting its leadership in East Asia at this stage. This need not, however, prevent other countries from accepting the reality of its rise. Tim Huxley, a Singapore-based expert of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, points out how a rising U.S. was accepted by East Asia decades ago. Countries that were long used to British supremacy simply and quickly accommodated the U.S. as the new big leader. Unrelated to such views of experts, this can possibly happen to China more easily in an evolving ecosystem of accommodation among the East Asian states.

– P. S. Suryanaraya