One key foreign policy brought in by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was to step up economic aid for countries in the Mekong River basin, designating 2008 the year of exchanges between Japan and the nations of the Mekong region. Last Wednesday, Japan hosted a ministerial meeting in Tokyo with the foreign ministers of five Mekong region countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).
Japan's Mekong River diplomacy has produced a slew of new initiatives in recent years. In November 2004, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian heads of state in their first summit, and they agreed to meet regularly every year. Two years later, Tokyo brought up the idea of a "crescent of freedom and prosperity", featuring aid for "emerging democracies" in the region, starting with the three nations mentioned above. In January 2007, Japan held a foreign minister-level meeting with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and offered to increase government funding for development aid. And on August 20 of the same year, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized in a policy address that Japan would pursue what it called "values diplomacy" with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and help the Mekong River countries advance the rule of law and build up election mechanisms that reflect the popular will.
At the foreign ministers' meeting with the five Mekong River nations last week, Japan promised more economic aid to the region, including a $20 million logistics network across the Mekong River valley at the Japanese government's expense, in addition to agreeing on the details of a $20 million aid package for the impoverished border regions of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Tokyo also called on Japanese enterprises to substantially increase their investments in Mekong River countries.
Japanese media have said the government's accelerated diplomatic and aid campaign in the Mekong River region is aimed at countering China's fast growing influence there, because China pursues a policy of "befriending, benefiting and reassuring its neighbors" and pushes for regional economic cooperation while increasing aid for the development of the region. These policies have allowed China's fast growing economy to benefit its neighbors in the Mekong River basin and helped enhance the region's prosperity and stability. China's relations with these countries have entered their best period in history. The situation has prompted some Japanese media entities to cry: "China's influence in that region has grown so much that it has surpassed Japan's."
As a matter of fact, competition and rivalry are not what the relationship between China and Japan's activities in the region is all about. There is a lot of room for the two countries to cooperate in helping the Mekong River region develop. The region faces a host of problems, including serious poverty, sorely inadequate infrastructure, environmental deterioration and a shortage of talent. It would greatly boost the region's development and stability if China and Japan joined hands to help the nations there solve these problems.
In fact, conditions are quite good today for China and Japan to jointly contribute to the development of the Mekong region. Leaders of both countries have expressed a willingness to deepen and expand bilateral cooperation in various areas and push forward the development of the strategic relationship of mutual benefit between the two East Asian neighbors. They have also agreed the two countries should cooperate in advancing the stability and development of not only Asia, but the whole world as well.
Premier Wen Jiabao has this to say on the issue: "China and Japan are two important countries in Asia and the world, and their relations exert significant impact on the region and even the world. We need to keep this in mind and step up bilateral coordination and cooperation ... and be committed to revitalizing Asia."
Prime Minister Fukuda has said Japan and China should cooperate for the sake of stability and development in Asia and the whole world.
To make this relationship of strategic mutual benefit concrete and advance stability and development in Asia, China and Japan can start by jointly advancing the stability and development of the Mekong River region. To be more specific, the two countries can cooperate in these areas:
First of all, they should join hands in helping uproot poverty in the region. The two nations can beef up their economic aid programs together and help the Mekong River region, where 50 million of the world's poorest people live, truly march toward prosperity and leave poverty forever behind. This will in turn contribute to the stability and development of that region, Asia and the world as a whole.
Second, they can help end the region's lack of modern infrastructure by working together in improving transportation, power supply, telecommunications and energy production. For transportation, China can help build the "north-south corridor" - a 2,000 km highway linking Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, and the Thai capital city of Bangkok via Laos. Japan, meanwhile, can aid the construction of the "east-west corridor" - a 1,500 km highway stretching from the port city of Da Nang on Vietnam's east coast through Laos and Thailand to Myanmar. The crisscrossing corridors will serve as pivotal transportation arteries, powering the development of regional economy; link the maritime members of ASEAN to the east and south; extend westward to India and link the Mekong River with the Ganges River; provide access to China in the north and help speed up the integration of an emerging regional economic sphere. Also, according to a report by Nikkei News on April 29, Japan and China were discussing the possibility of providing joint support for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to build power plants.
Third, they should also join efforts to improve the region's environment, which is deteriorating every day. As the economy develops, the region is increasingly hurt by soil deterioration, deforestation, ecological destruction, urban water shortages and growing waste. For instance, all eco-preservation zones in the region are threatened by human activities, which will lead to irreversible damage to the local eco-system if no preventive action is taken. Japan holds an edge over other Asian countries in advanced environmental protection technology and financial power, while the Chinese government has always been proactive in pushing for more efforts to beef up environmental protection.
China and Japan can also help gear up the development of human resources of the Mekong River nations by channeling their rich manpower, advanced know-how and abundant material resources to the region and by improving local communities' health and sanitation standards.
The authors are researchers with China Institute of Contemporary International Relations
(China Daily January 24, 2008)