At the first East Asia Summit next week, Japan will be stuck as usual between East and West as it tries to balance commitments to close friend United States with moves to intensify economic ties with Asian neighbors. Although Japanese companies are increasingly investing in Asia, and China has already surpassed the United States as Japan's biggest trade partner, Tokyo remains dependent on its military alliance with Washington to ward off threats from a nuclear China and from North Korea, which also claims to have nuclear weapons.
While the summit was being organized, Japan pushed to include Australia, New Zealand and India, all U.S. allies, in opposition to China's hopes to limit the field to Southeast Asian nations, South Korea, Japan and China.
That has not gone down well among some in Asia. Japan's popularity in Asia already has taken a beating by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to a war shrine that honors war criminals along with the nation's war dead, which have outraged China and South Korea.
Koizumi, who last visited Yasukuni Shrine in October, is unlikely to land sideline meetings with his Chinese and Korean counterparts during the Dec. 14 East Asia Summit, the culmination of weeklong meetings hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.
Koizumi has repeatedly said Japan is a peaceful nation and that his visits to Yasukuni are not sending a militarist message.
"The visits are symbolic in the sense that they indicate that Japan cannot be told what to do," said Brian McVeigh, professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona, who has written a book about Japanese nationalism. "The idea here is: If we can't pay respect to our war dead the way we want, then how can we ever craft a foreign policy that is in our national interest free from foreign interference?"
McVeigh notes that Japan has long melded bits of the West and the East in its national identity. Ever since U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's black ships landed in 1853, Japan has learned it must adapt to the West if it hopes to modernize. Unlike China, Japan has a deeply rooted sense of capitalism and popular democracy as well as a heavy dependence on free trade, McVeigh said in an e-mail.
"I think that at heart, many in the Japanese leadership feel that they can take advantage of being stuck between East versus West," he said, adding that Japan also feels its survival is better served by siding with the West. "However, I'm sure the leadership is hoping that it never has to make such a hard decision, and until that time comes, it will play both sides of the fence."
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said hopes are high that the East Asia Summit will be "a new chapter" for Asian history. But Aso was quick to add that Japan must remember its partnership with the United States.
The U.S.-Japan alliance has ensured that "the waters of Asia were waters of peace," he told reporters this week ahead of his departure to Malaysia.
Takashi Terada, an international relations expert at National University of Singapore, said that notions of regional unity always have been beset by tensions between Japan and China.
Asian neighbors are suspicious that Japan will work as a voice for Washington at the summit, though they're also wary of China's might and want Japan around to allay such fears, Terada said. "Throughout the meetings, there lurks the shadow of the United States," he said. "One thing to watch is how much the U.S. framework will be reflected in the meetings through Japan."
Toshihiko Kinoshita, an economist at Waseda University in Tokyo, believes that China and other Asian nations all secretly appreciate the U.S.-Japan security alliance because the last thing they want is a Japan that feels compelled to boost its military strength, reports the AP. I.L.