Japanese minister's views make some sense

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2006, 12:00am

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso may not seem like the best person to comment on China's affairs: he has repeatedly infuriated neighbouring countries by saying there is no problem with Japanese officials visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where leading war criminals are honoured. Not only has he suggested that Emperor Akihito go to the shrine and backed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's regular visits, but as minister of internal affairs and communications last April, he joined 80 other lawmakers in going there, amid anti-Japanese protests in China.

Given such a record, it would be easy to dismiss Mr Aso's remarks calling for greater regional co-operation to help China solve its problems as two-faced. The shrine visits, refusal by Japanese leaders to apologise sufficiently to Asians for atrocities committed by the nation's military before and during the second world war, and increasingly heated territorial disputes with China and South Korea have boosted nationalism at the expense of regional harmony.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue with the observations by Japan's top diplomat that energy, environment and water problems and disparity of development in China could hamper East Asia's potential. With the region so dependent on China, it is essential that there is co-operation to ensure sustained growth.

To negate perceived future difficulties, he recommended a 'multilateral regional framework through which China can realise that its interests are best served by acting as a constructive partner and by interacting with its neighbours on an equal footing'. Japan, he said, wanted to create a future East Asian order 'that is not closed but open to the outside; directed towards common interests, not individual ones; and founded on shared values, not on confrontational values'.

Mr Aso's remarks could be dismissed as interference in the affairs of a rival country or simply ignored. Although a potential successor to Mr Koizumi, he has stirred enough regional discontent with previous comments to be dismissed as untrustworthy. Japan should certainly be doing more to bring about the co-operation - rather than confrontation - of which he speaks. Despite this, there is good sense in Mr Aso's thinking. The mainland's economy is already deeply entwined with the rest of Asia's and internal matters such as energy shortfalls will have an impact on the region. Ensuring the mainland's stable development and growth is in the interest of Asia's people.

Economic co-operation is already well advanced: the mainland has accords with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India, while the finance ministers of Japan, China and South Korea agreed yesterday to deepen ties. But as Mr Aso has suggested, relations should be further increased to encompass issues of regional concern. That way, the future will be more predictable.