"Asian leaders call for cooperation, less Western influence"

Panel Discussion: June 7, 2001

Sino-U.S. relations cause for concern; no-shows point to political volatility

Senior staff writer

Spurred by the recent discord between China and the U.S., the 7th International Conference on the Future of Asia, sponsored by The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, was marked by discussion of economic cooperation as a means of assuring regional stability and peace.

The conference, which was held at Tokyo's Imperial Hotel on June 7 and 8, gave several Japanese speakers the chance to express their ideas on ways of moving ahead with regional economic integration.

Other regional leaders share the goal of a more integrated future. Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai stressed his dedication to economic cooperation as one means of attracting foreign capital and improving the Vietnamese economy. His Cambodian counterpart, Prime Minister Hun Sen, expressed similar sentiments as he explained his nation's economic development plan and called for cooperation from Japan.

Both the Vietnamese and Cambodian leaders were taking part in the conference for the first time, their countries having only recently become members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The two nations clearly lag behind more advanced ASEAN members when it comes to economic development, and the leaders clearly felt that the conference, which attracts many Japanese industrialists, was the ideal forum for promoting their countries.

To date, the Future of Asia conference has brought together 117 participants from 16 nations and regions, including heads of state as well as leading business people and thinkers. The conference has become one of the largest of its kind to be conducted with private sponsorship.

This year's gathering featured a large audience whose enthusiasm for questions took many sessions into overtime. The high level of interest may perhaps reflect the current mindset in Asia, which combines anxiety about the political situation with hope for the economic future.

One key source of tension in the region is the fact that the new administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is taking a harder line with China. Domingo L. Siazon Jr., former foreign secretary of the Philippines, expressed a common sentiment when he said Chinese adventurism could be a cause of regional instability.

A look at the list of conference participants this year reveals the current state of affairs in the region. Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid attended the conference last year and promised he would be back. The intense political pressure he was facing at home before being dismissed by the Indonesian national assembly last week meant he could not keep that promise. Likewise, former Filipino President Joseph Estrada attended the fifth conference and was expected to take part this year, but was ousted amid a corruption scandal.

Increased economic cooperation has become more likely in the wake of the 1998 economic crisis, which forced countries in the region to cooperate in a greater number of areas.

China is not only emerging as a market but also as a major production base for the region. No speaker failed to mention the need to harness China's potential power, linking it to the development of the entire Asian region through cooperation.

The speakers also pointed to growing regional economic integration in Europe and North America. Yoo Sang-boo, chairman and chief executive officer of Pohang Iron & Steel Co., even called for a joint venture involving South Korea, China and Japan in the steel sector.

Several speakers spoke of integration in information-technology development. Min Weifang, chairman of China's Peking University Founder Group Corp., called for a joint Asian effort in areas from basic research to commercialization as a way to catch up with the West. NEC Corp. president Koji Nishigaki suggested that Japan cooperate with China and India as a means to bolster competitiveness.

Many speakers discussed issues of economic development, including the need to rebuild the region's financial systems. There was an insistence that initiatives not simply be borrowed wholesale from the West, but rather developed with Asia's unique circumstances taken into account.

Former Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce Supachai Panitchpakdi, who is to take over the helm of the World Trade Organization soon, was one such speaker. He pointed out that unique Asian approaches were used to overcome the last economic crisis. Kenji Yoshizawa, deputy chairman of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, also mentioned original Asian solutions.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad went somewhat further, criticizing the West for trying to force its own systems on Asia. His words reflected Asia's preference for individual and specific solutions instead of sweeping principles that some Western representatives insisted on during the last economic crisis.

Speaking at a dinner party held during the conference, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that Japan hopes to achieve regional prosperity and stability by linking Japan's reforms with those of Asia.

(The Nikkei Weekly July 30 Issue)

Titles of speakers, names of companies, etc., were correct as of the time when the forum was held.