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(October 30, 2018) China-Japan thaw: Good news for Asean - Kavi Chongkittavorn

The new thaw between China and Japan -- the world's No.2 and No.3 economies -- is a good development for Asean. The three-day official visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to China last week marked a new turning point in their roller-coaster of ties. The much-awaited improvement bodes well for ongoing Asean community-building efforts in all dimensions. The region's progress and stability depend very much on the level of these Asian economic giants' amity and cooperation.

Remarkably, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Abe recognised that given the current international strategic environment, their two countries are increasingly dependent on one another and their common interests and concerns on many levels have also multiplied. As such, these challenges provide new opportunities for them to cooperate more. Whether the warming up will be sustainable and develop further into something more dynamic will hinge on the impact of the US's American First policy and denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula.

After all, US President Donald Trump's trade and security policies, both in rhetoric and action, have caused strategic anxiety in Beijing and Tokyo. Gradually, under Washington's pressure, a gradual convergence of common interest between China and Japan has taken shape -- an effort to shield themselves from the US policy's fallouts. Now, they are on the same page as far as economic affairs are concerned in promoting free and multilateral trade. Undeniably, this trend will render eventual political repercussions. Over time, the strength of China-Japan ties can minimise Washington's future retaliatory measures.

Since 2012, China and Japan have been very unfriendly toward each other for obvious reasons, as they were engaged in a longstanding dispute over territorial claims to small uninhabited islets controlled by Japan in the East China Sea. At the same time, both the domestic and external environments in their countries impinged on them to maintain the status quo. Their leaders were trying to consolidate power and manage public expectations because of an economic slowdown and the rise of nationalism. Any external compromise or soft approach would not augur well for their domestic governance and hold on power. Coupled with the new security environment in Europe and the Middle East, Japan and China chose to focus on their domestic concerns.

After years of shuttle diplomacy and confidence-building, China and Japan are in a cooperative mood rather than a confrontational one. Lest we forget, China-Japan competition in the economic and political spheres was at its most intense over the past five years. Under Mr Abe, Japan has become more assertive in non-economic matters, strengthening security ties with allies and friends as never before seen both in the region and beyond.

For the time being, China's rise coupled, encompassing economic mega-plans across various continents, has generated a mixed reaction from the West. The commonly cited narrative pinpoints China's ambition to loosen up the liberal rules-based international order, from which it has benefited handsomely. Beijing consistently denies such an interpretation.

At this juncture, in their own ways, Mr Xi and Mr Abe are very comfortable with their leadership, hold on power and administrative control in their countries. Nevertheless, the two leaders have their work cut out for them. Mr Xi must lead China to new economic heights, especially under pressure from Washington and its allies over trade. Mr Abe needs to stimulate Japan's stalled economy to ensure that the 2020 Olympics will perform the same miracle for its economy and politics as its first games did in 1964.

For the two countries to accomplish these tasks, the level of mutual trust must be further promoted and strengthened to the same level when they signed the Treaty of China-Japan Peace and Friendship in 1978. Indeed, Beijing and Tokyo still have a lot to catch up. Truth be told, their economies have been severely battered by the worsening relations more than their officials would like to admit. The people-to-people contacts and traditional friendships have also suffered greatly. Now the two countries have another chance to rectify their relations, making them more mutually inclusive and stable. As always, historical experience and lessons must be learned and appreciated. With sincerity and political will, the signs are hopeful that the two countries will be able to come to terms with their unpleasant past.

In the weeks and months ahead, China and Japan need to play a high profile and collaborative role in shaping the regional order. There are three ongoing regional trends to be discerned -- as donors, defenders of free and multilateral trade and engaging the Indo-Pacific region.

First, China and Japan are the region's biggest providers of development assistance. For the past four decades, Japan has been the key donor to developing countries in this part of the world. Now, China is catching up as its economic power surges. The Asean countries, which used to benefit from Japan's generous aid, are now major recipients of China's assistance, especially in infrastructure projects.

In Beijing last week, China and Japan agreed that they could work together on joint development plans in a third country. It is a welcome trend. Thailand's much-hyped Eastern Economic Corridor could be a target area where this new development formula can be experimented with and implemented. Mr Abe said that Japan has stopped development aid to China after four decades of doing so. Japan's development aid played an important role in China's early period of modernisation.

Second, their roles as protectors of free trade and multilateralism in the region and beyond must be recognised. China and Japan are members of the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP). They need to provide new impetus for RCEP members to conclude the world's largest free trade bloc. Japan is also a leading member of the newly formed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which excludes the US. Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have expressed their interest in joining the CPTPP.

The conclusion of the RCEP agreement will send a strong signal to the international community that the East Asian economies reject protectionism. Acting together, China and Japan can persuade the rest of the RCEP, especially India, to help ensure region-wide well-being and benefits.

Finally, with cordial China-Japan ties, various existing Indo-Pacific concepts will require a recalibration. After China gave birth to the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the US and its allies scrambled to come up with comparable alternative schemes. The US Indo-Pacific concept, which the Pentagon called a strategy, is clearly aimed at countering the rise of China. Of late, Washington has added an economic dimension with financial assistance to the strategy to make it more attractive.

Japan has its own version, focusing more on economic development in the India and Pacific oceans, including Africa's east coast. India's proposal zeroes in on maritime cooperation and connectivity with Asean at its centre. At this stage, the Asean leaders have agreed to take up the challenge and plan to put forward their own vision of the Indo-Pacific framework at the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS) in Singapore next month. Asean hopes to maximise the window of opportunity generated by improved China-Japan ties to strengthen the EAS platform and increase its strategic value.