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US, Japan in relationship-building drive

Worries about China have encouraged a relationship-building drive across Asia. China has accused the US and Japan of ganging up against it, after both countries made reference to China's “destabilising” actions in the South China Sea.

WASHINGTON: Worries about China have encouraged a relationship-building drive across Asia.

During the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore recently, China accused the US and Japan of ganging up against it, after both countries made reference to China's “destabilising” actions in the South China Sea.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel had said: "In recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea."

That comment, alongside similar, less explicit criticism from Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, led to an accusation from China that Washington and Tokyo were “ganging up” on Beijing.

The conference at Washington think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) might not have laid those fears to rest, as American and Japanese experts discussed closer economic integration.

But they said closer trade ties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are not meant to exclude China - and Beijing could eventually be part of something even bigger than the TPP.

Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at CSIS, said: "I think very much it's been an implicit assumption of TPP that ultimately China would be a part of this - if not of TPP itself, I think there could be a leapfrogging from TPP to some other, broader agreement - let's call it a free trade area of the Asia Pacific, which would be a sort of TPP Plus arrangement."

One Japanese expert also felt that closer regional economic ties may even help resolve some of the thorny territorial disputes currently dogging the region.

Shujiro Urata, professor from Waseda University’s Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, said: "I like to see more economic integration or interaction between two countries, say Japan and China, will lead to a better security relationship. As I understand it, the closer they get together, it makes more damage if they get into trouble."

But others said strong US-Japan ties are good for the region, and are staying, so Beijing will have to adjust accordingly.

Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair of CSIS, said: "I think the headline from Shangri-La is not the US and Japan and China having this sort of nasty exchange, most of it coming from the Chinese side, but rather that the Chinese side needs to reflect on how much it's causing the rest of the region to not only grow concerned, but say so and increase co-operation with each other."

As for the US, many in Washington said the Obama administration needs to build on the goodwill generated by the president's recent trip to the Asia Pacific by clarifying its message and recognising and getting involved with Tokyo's reinvigorated ties with India.

Green said: "The really remarkable transformation is India and Japan, which had a sort of distant connection. But Abe and (India's Prime Minister) Modi are two peas in a pod. I think you're going to see a lot more economic and strategic ties between Japan and India."

There is great appetite in Washington for a successful resolution to the TPP as soon as possible, and co-operation with Japan is seen as one way of achieving that.

Hopes that this greater economic integration may heal diplomatic rifts are so far proving to be optimistic.  

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