Five University Conference

Date: December 13 and 14 2013


A delegation from the Policy Alternative Research Institute (PARI) was delighted to attend the fifth “Five University Conference”, impeccably organised by the National University of Singapore on 13th-14th December, 2013. The conference is an annual event within the network formed by Princeton University, Peking University, the University of Tokyo, Korea University and the National University of Singapore (NUS). With the Singapore conference the first five year cycle has been successfully completed. The delegation from Japan was composed by PARI Director Professor Hideaki Shiroyama, Professor Kiichi Fujiwara, Professor Akio Takahara, Professor Keisuke Iida, Professor Mie Oba (Tokyo University of Science), and Dr. Roberto Orsi.

The conference has been an extraordinary event for its very high level of intellectual exchange and frankness of conversation among international studies scholars coming from different viewpoints. The greatest gratitude goes to Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (Singapore), who hosted the conference and warmly welcomed all the participants within a collaborative and positive atmosphere.

Through the various panels, the conference has highlighted the urgency of re-establishing a degree of mutual trust in the North-East Asia region against the background of the currently heightened geopolitical tensions, especially those between China and Japan and between Japan and Korea. In numerous occasions various analyses have insisted on the lack of a systemic platform in North-East Asia for the conduct of diplomatic negotiations, or even simply for the establishment of personal acquaintance among negotiators, in contrast to the effective and positive contribution played by ASEAN in those domains for the South-East Asia region.

Both North and South East Asia remain polarised by the rise of China as an economic and military superpower and the countering strategies which, in various articulations, have been put forwards by the US and other countries for the purpose of containment and/or balancing. In South East Asia, this form of polarisation appears to be generating an intensifying competition between the US and China in relation to the exercise of influence on several ASEAN nations, with the positive consequence, as highlighted by Professor Mahbubani, that the region is thus attracting considerable attention and investments, but also the negative effect of fostering intra-ASEAN geopolitical dislocation. In the North East Asia region, the polarisation is worryingly assuming the tone of a direct confrontation between great powers.

Several times the paradoxical relation between economic interdependence and geopolitical confrontation has emerged as one of the most striking factor in the region's political landscape. While on the one hand the various economies are among the most integrated in the world (including the link with the US economy and financial system), with vastly intertwined production chains, technology transfers and financial flows, on the other hand this intense interaction appears to be insufficient for the enhancement of a better political climate among states.

This is especially true when concerning two points on which conference participants have recurrently dwelled, namely territorial disputes and the role of historical memories. Numerous contributions have shed light on the controversies which insist on the status of internationally disputed or simply contested border and territories. Much attention has been dedicated to the South China Sea border demarcation and the claims advanced by a number of states on the Spratly Islands, and of course to the Chinese claim on Japan's Senkaku islands. While the paradoxical relation between economic interdependence and geopolitical frictions was explored, the emergence of new trade networks has been discussed with particular reference to the TPP and its possible political interpretations in the wake of a possible bi-polarisation of East Asia in trading blocs.

As anticipated, it also appears that one of the fundamental issues for the explanation of geopolitical rivalry and for the deficiency of inter-governmental dialogue in the North East Asian region can be traced back to the question of historical memories and the political stances that political elites, not to mention public opinions at large, hold over past events and their interpretation. The perpetuation of this cultural setting makes the construction of a stable political dialogue considerably problematic, and several conference participants have drawn unfavourable comparisons on the different ways in which Europe and Asia have addressed the problem of the relations between historical memory and politics.

Finally, all five institutions have expressed their great satisfaction for having completed the first cycle of conferences, enthusiastically approving the perspective of another five year cycle. The auspices for an improvement of the international situation in East Asia have been expressed, while praising the positive impact of this kind of events with a view to the promotion of international dialogue and the deepening of cultural exchanges between academic communities.

Structure of the conference

The conference was articulated in a public session followed by five regular sessions and two sessions for graduate students.

The public session and the regular sessions 1-3 took place on December 13.

Public session

The public session (9:00 to 11:00) focused on the question Can ASEAN withstand Great Power rivalry?, was chaired by Professor Kishore Mahbubani (NUS), who delivered a keynote speech highlighting the success of the five university network initiative, while lamenting the difficult political situation in the relations between the home countries of the delegations participating the conference, but hoping for a future improvement.

On the point of the position of ASEAN nations in the context of Great Power rivalry, professor Mahbubani remained optimistic about the future of this international organisation, underscoring its historical ability to foster forms of collaborations despite the existence, already in the past, of numerous drivers of division. It is precisely the heightened geopolitical competition between the US and China in the region which is bringing international attention and investments. However, he also briefly analysed the existence of threats to the unity of ASEAN coming from the possibility of a stronger geopolitical pull from the superpowers.

Professor Sung-han Kim (Korea University) has offered a Korean perspective on the ASEAN situation, remarking how China has expanded its presence in the region considerably while the US was overwhelmingly concentrated in the Middle East during the past decade. The US has recently started a rebalancing strategy, and also Japan has stepped up its activities in South East Asia. The Republic of Korea is following this trend, with a strategy based on cooperation in the areas of economic development, security and cultural exchange. His opinion concerning the future of ASEAN is that eventually the organisation may embrace one of the following options: 1. Strengthening of an East Asian regionalism, which appears to be a strategic direction somehow privileging the relations with China. 2. Building on the idea of an Asia-Pacific regionalism which may include the US and even Australia. The TPP may be interpreted as a sign in this direction. Such an approach can be seen as a way to balance Chinese expansion. 3. An “ASEAN centrality” approach, where South East Asian nations try not to take side in favour neither of the US nor of China, and to preserve a full freedom of manoeuvre. This however appears to be a difficult option, as ASEAN states are seemingly moving towards one of the two superpowers already. The key for ASEAN unity is apparently, according to Professor Kim, to keep a moderate stance without siding too strongly with one of the great powers.

Professor Jia Qingguo (Peking University) stated that, in response to the question of ASEAS's prospect in the face of Great Power politics, this depends on three factors, namely the development of US-China relations, of China-Japan relations, of a way in which the ASEAN countries will approach the complex of China-Japan-US relations.

The position of China in this scheme has been described by Professor Qingguo as one in which China is increasingly thinking about itself as a “global power”, willing to avoid conflict and confrontation. Working in that direction, Beijing has multiplied dialogue initiatives in recent years, thus making sure that communication problems are kept at the minimum. However, there are unresolved questions in the current predicament. Some of them are long standing issues, particularly with the US, on matters such as human rights and trade. But new challenges are surfacing fast, and are almost invariably related to ongoing power transition due to the rise of China. For China, this power transition entails a painful identity crisis: while the country is still largely poor (on average) and with vast underdeveloped areas, it is already considered by many as a superpower. Such contrast has become visible in some contradictions within China's foreign policy. Of course, the more China will rise as a regional and global power, the more complex the management of its international political position will become.

Coming back to the ASEAN's international position, Professor Qingguo stated that, similarly to Australia, ASEAN nations face the problem of where to stand in an increasing US-China polarisation. Possibly the best approach for the ASEAN countries is that of refraining from commitment to one side, and to operate within an issue-based framework. Of course, a policy of equidistance from the US and China may not be always possible, and its feasibility depend, as mentioned before, on the future development of US-China relations. Finally, on the point of China-Japan relations, Professor Qingguo highlighted the existence of numerous common interests between the two nations, despite the outstanding territorial disputes and the question of historical responsibility. However, although in both countries the will of avoid conflicts appears to be there, things are not moving in the right direction.

Professor John Ikenberry (Princeton University) opened his intervention by noticing how uncertainty in East Asia is certainly growing, both in North East Asia with increasing geopolitical tensions, and in South East Asia with accelerating polarisation within ASEAN. But ASEAN has indeed a powerful positive role in smoothing tension and providing channels for the diplomatic settlement of disputes. Professor Ikenberry has indicated three main factors for instability in East Asia, namely: 1. North Korea's nuclear threat and the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of aggressive moves from Pyongyang. 2. The rise or resurgence of nationalism, which is not of course unique to Japan, but has to be found in all East Asia nations in one form or the other. 3. The power transition between China and the US, with a polarisation of countries in the region in a paradoxical way, whereby strong and intertwined links exists with the two superpowers both in the economic and in the security domains.

In his analysis of China's interests, Professor Ikenberry has stated that it is all in China's favour to show restraint and not to act in ways which can be perceived as threats by its neighbours. An aggressive China will not achieve any power increase in Asia, but on the contrary will find itself increasingly isolated, in a situation which Ikenberry named as “self-encirclement”.

ASEAN can certainly play an important role as a forum for discussion in the attempt to build mutual trust among neighbouring countries, as long as polarisation is kept at sustainable levels.

Professor Kiichi Fujiwara (University of Tokyo) underscored at the beginning of his intervention the difficulty of answering the question of ASEN withstanding great power rivalry with a clear cut yes or no. However, from a Japanese perspective, there is no doubt that interest and involvement in South East Asia is becoming again more prominent, after a period of neglect during previous administrations. Professor Fujiwara has remarked how the ASEAN has been so far the most successful international organisation outside Europe, possibly because ASEAN leaders have used the association largely in a bid to strengthen their domestic position. Indeed, while the European Union is largely about a gradual restraining of the power of the sovereign nation state, in South East Asia ASEAN has constituted a framework for the sovereign state to perform better, and to be further enhanced by providing an external support to nation-building domestic processes. In this sense, Professor Fujiwara stressed, the ASEAN is much more similar to the Congress of Vienna system in its nature of international relations complex among tendentially authoritarian states, and this appears to be reflected in the elitism which seems to characterise this organisation, despite successive movements of democratisation, starting from the revolution in the Philippines in 1986.

The current situation is clearly dominated by the rise of China as a major economic and military power. In a way, China is imitating the search for friends and markets for its goods as Japan did in past decades, trying to establish solid trade and political relations, as China has moved from a revolutionary foreign policy to a developmental one. On the other hand, China has to face US rivalry in the region.

Coming to the issue of China-Japan relations, Professor Fujiwara has stated that there are essentially two possible approaches that Tokyo may adopt towards Beijing. First, a strategy of containment, but he has also expressed scepticism on whether it may work. Alternatively, the Japanese strategy can be one of hedging China. Indeed, particularly from the economic and trade perspective, China appears to be not only a growing market, but a changing market, where risks are numerous and largely unpredictable.

Finally, while assessing the US recent return to East Asia (the “pivot”), Professor Fujiwara argued that it would be difficult to envisage a role for ASEAN in the new American regional initiative.

Professor Kanti Bajpai (NUS) has expressed an optimistic view on the future perspectives of ASEAN, stating that it will probably survive great power politics because of its ability to soften the tensions by diplomatic means. In the long run, here are five possible scenario for the ASEAN nations, especially concerning the South China Sea disputes: 1. ASEAN as a largely China-dominated area, although it appears highly unlikely that Vietnam and the Philippines will eventually capitulate. 2. Chinas gives in on its territorial claims 3. An agreement for the joined exploration/exploitation of natural resources is reached. 4. ASEAN threatens to side more decisively with the US, concluding a formal alliance with Washington. 5. ASEAN becomes more self-centred with a strengthening and deepening of ASEAN solidarity, also by diversifying its economic focus away from the US. In this perspective, ASEAN nations could consider the possibility of creating a regional bloc around its most powerful member, namely Indonesia, although this appears to be very problematic.

Session 1

Session 1 (11:30-13:00) was centred on the question What lessons, if any, can North East Asia learn from South East Asia?, and was chaired by Professor Kanti Bajpai.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani (NUS) has stated that North East Asia has a lot to learn from ASEAN. South East Asia was also a region dominated by tensions and virulent mutual distrust some decades ago, however it has managed to improve its degree of collaboration dramatically, and this is first of all due to the gradual but extensive creation of personal relationships between negotiators and diplomats, which in turn depends of course on the frequency and regularity of their meetings. North East Asian nations should establish a framework allowing diplomats and leaders “to meet and talk”, as in the ASEAN way. Professor Mahbubani has also pointed at the extreme diversity of the ASEAN nations (socialist and capitalist regimes, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, extreme ethnic diversity), which makes the organisation an experimental laboratory for inter-civilisational dialogue which should one day take place at global level.

Professor Sung-han Kim (Korea University) acknowledged that North East Asia lacks the necessary infrastructure for the establishment of systematic, frequent and regular dialogue, as in the case of ASEAN. An improvement on the current situation may perhaps be achieved by focusing more strongly on less politically controversial issues, such as the concept of human security, while leaving aside more problematic questions.

Professor Gui Yongtao (Peking University) highlighted the role of domestic political pressures in determining the rise of international frictions. He indicated how particularly nationalism is playing a stronger role in North East Asia, as opposed to the ASEAN states. This is true for Japan, who has a political leadership using nationalistic tones, even bordering jingoism, but it is also true for China, where public opinion is dominated by a very strong nationalistic sentiment.

Professor Gilbert Rozman (Princeton University) declared his position as pessimistic in relation to both North East and South East Asia international politics. In his view, also the positive role of ASEAN is easing tensions should not be overestimated, while the contrast between the US and China is developing more and more, despite the stratification of economic interdependence, as a conflict of cultural values, with the Chinese re-appropriation of traditional Eastern values.

Professor Hideaki Shiroyama (The University of Tokyo) has provided a through reconstruction of the evolution of ASEAN from its beginnings to the current situation. He has how the progress and success of this association seems to be linked to the choice made by ASEAN leadership to address political issues first, before moving to other forms of cooperation. While it is possible to draw parallels with the situation in North East Asia, the lessons to be learned may not find an immediate application in the relations between China, Japan and Korea.

Session 2

Session 2 (14:00-15:30) asked the panel participants to consider the impact of free trade agreements on the region, with the question: Do free trade partnerships complicate regional security dilemmas? The session was chaired by Professor Huang Jing (NUS).

Professor Wang Dong (Peking University) has remarked that China follows the negotiations surrounding the TPP very closely, as this is considered to have not only economic, but also political implications. Beijing as even signalled a possible interest in joining the trading bloc negotiations.

Professor Keisuke Iida (The University of Tokyo) offered the Japanese perspective on the TPP, whereby the Japanese government has joined the negotiations only in March 2013, although the idea was initially debated already during the Kan administration. The TPP should have the effect of promoting economic growth primarily through the stimulation of consumption. However, it is rather clear that the current Japanese government understands the perspective of joining the trading bloc not only for its economic benefits, but especially as a political move for the enhancement of an economic area to balance a rising China.

Professor Razeen Sally (NUS) began his contribution by reminding how (already in antiquity) the decision between open trade policies as opposed to protectionist or mercantilist practices is largely political. The construction of economic orders, especially at international and global levels, normally follows periods of great political turmoil, and major wars. He assessed the recent economic history of East Asia as one characterised by a considerable degree of liberalism until the turn of the century, but in the last thirteen years it is possible to observe, with the multiplication of bilateral agreements, the appearance of drive towards the creation of trading blocs. Examples of this are the three trading agreements of Asian nations with the US, and particularly the US-Singapore FTA, which is considered the “gold standard” of FTAs.

Professor Taehee Whang (Korea Univesity) has introduced the political and economic theories of regional economic integration (REI), developing a comprehensive theory of REI covering both demand and supply side conditions. Successively, he has applied the theory to the case of TPP for South Korea, arguing that neither demand nor supply side conditions were met in case of South Korea. South Korea's recent decision to enter negotiation for TPP does not depend, apparently, on economic rationale, but it was a political decision made in order to honour the ROK-US commitments.

Session 3

Session 3 (16:00-17:30) saw the participants discuss the question Is Asia Punching Below Its Weight in Contributions to Global Governance and Global Norms?, therefore discussing the role of Asian in shaping the global political culture of the present, and possibly of the future. The session was moderated by Professor Chong Ja Ian (NUS).

Professor John Ikenberry (Princeton University) argued that the world is certainly witnessing the rise of a global order dominated partially by non-Western actors. There seems to be a growing consensus in the literature about the current transition from a unipolar to a multi-polar world. However, while this is taking place, it is important to notice how the newly emerging or re-emerging powers are not threatening the system of rules and institutions of the liberal world order as established after 1945, but they are working within such a framework. The rise of China, Professor Ikenberry stated, creates demand for more, not for less, liberal internationalism. So the power transition can be devised largely as a revision of the hierarchy in world politics, not of its norms and institutions. Even from the economic perspective, what we are witnessing a wider distribution of the “spoils of modernity”, and all three current forms of capitalist production, namely neo-liberal, social-democratic and developmental, appear to be coherent with the overarching liberal international order.

Professor Mie Oba (Tokyo University of Science) remarked that there is a difference between strengthening the voice of Asia and significantly changing the international system of norms. In this sense, the role of Asia cannot be underestimated as the continent has a growing power in shaping at least some important aspects of global agendas, and in the economic distribution of power. Professor Oba has also remarked that the “Asian values” discourse appears to be of limited use, as there is no clarity on the identification, definition and impact of such “values”.

Professor Heng Yee Kuang (NUS) assessed the role of small countries in the international system and their capability to shape international norms. It appears that, while they may not be able to play a role in determining the fundamental pillars of the system, they can nevertheless play an extremely useful role in establishing links between middle and great powers. As in the example of Singapore, small state can give a significant contribution to the formulation of agendas on global issues, and programmes for global governance.

Professor Jia Qingguo (Peking University) agreed that Asia is indeed punching below its weight in the shaping of normative orders in international politics, particularly if “Asia” includes the whole continent.

Session 4

Session 4 (9:00-11:00) concentrated on the question How will China's emergence reshape the regional new security order? and was chaired by Professor Kishore Mahbubani (NUS).

Professor Akio Takahara (The University of Tokyo) delivered a thorough reconstruction of the international dispute surrounding the Senkaku islands issue, stressing how the sharpening of tensions in the region is a powerful symptom that a more conservative line is emerging as prevalent within Chinese foreign policy makers' circles. However, Professor Takahara also stressed the uncertainty surrounding future Chinese initiative, mostly due to the opaqueness of Beijing's system of government. He has also advocated a series of initiatives aimed at stabilising the strategic situation, such as adopting measures strengthening the balance of power, deepening economic interdependence, and promoting the observance of international norms. A special role can be envisaged for Chinese scholars leaning towards internationalist positions, who may give useful suggestion on how to proceed in order to secure international peace.

Professor Huang Jing (NUS) has started his intervention by reminding how historically almost all international power shifts have led to conflict. In the case of China's rise however, Beijing has so far not challenged the order established by the US after 1945, but it has in fact sought integration in it, particularly in the economic sphere, where the power transition is more evident. China has now risen to a central role for the Asia-Pacific region.

Professor Byungki Kim (Korean University) has articulated his view that North East Asia appears to be currently arranged around a substantially bipolar order, with China, Russia, North Korea on one side, and South Korea, Japan and the US on the other. Professor Kim has assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the current order, remarking that Russia is resurgent but has limited resources, China is growing but it is still unable to pose a decisive challenge to the power of the US. However, its rapid economic growth has effectively shocked an established regional order. North Korea continues to represent the most formidable element of instability in the region.

Professor Yu Tiejun (Peking University) has called for a reflection on the tenability of the “rise of China” narrative, whereby this type of framework of analysis may in reality miss out on a number of important dynamics, also those internal to China and the evolution of its foreign policy.

Professor Thomas Christensen (Princeton University), following a debate already initiated in previous sessions, has remarked the positive role of ASEAN in the South East of the continent, arguing that the absence of a similar organisation in the North East Asia is certainly one of the factors making the ease of tensions diplomatically more challenging. Professor Christensen has also argued that North Korea is the centre of the security problems in the region, and that China pays a disproportionately high price for its alliance with Pyongyang in diplomatic terms.

Session 5

The concluding session 5 (11:00-12:30) asked the participants to discuss the question Which dispute settlement mechanisms can best alleviate the South China Sea disputes? and was chaired by Professor Heng Yee Kuang (NUS).

Professor Robert Beckman (NUS) provided an extremely powerful and detailed presentation about the disputed territorial areas in East Asia, remarking the different legal status of islands and rocks, with the respective implication according to international law with respect to international borders and EEZs.

Professor Jae-Seung Lee (Korea University) has presented on the issue of energy security in East Asia, highlighting both the presence and distribution of oil/gas reserves in the area, including territorially disputed zones, and the dependence from supplies coming from other areas of the world, particularly the Gulf region. This of course has geopolitical implications on the control of the security on that supply flow. Professor Lee suggested that a convergence between the various geopolitical actors may be reached by bracketing security competition while focusing on a shared public good agenda.

Professor Zhu Feng (Peking University) has argued that China's position on the disputed territories is a moderate one and China is certainly not looking for a confrontation with its neighbours. However, there contradictions and mixed signals in Beijing's foreign policy, which can lead to misunderstandings and errors.

Professor Kiichi Fujiwara (University of Tokyo) started his intervention by assessing Japan's foreign policy during the current administration. Prime Minister Abe appears to be looking for a rapproachement with China, although for largely unforeseeable reasons relations with Beijing have been deteriorating. On the other hand, relations with Korea have also reached a very low point.

Japan has in any case recently resumed a more active involvement in South East Asia, after a long period of substantial neglect. This opens the problem of how to make those openings productive in the sense of stabilising security and peace in both North and South East Asia. According to Professor Fujiwara, it would be a mistake to try to establish a “grand alliance” for the containment of China. Instead, the role of ASEAN can be precious in providing a platform for diplomatic exchange and discussion. It would be important, even crucial at this juncture, to start conversations with the Chinese government about mechanisms aimed at de-escalating tensions, particularly concerning the deployment of advanced weapon systems.

Also concerning the Japan-US alliance, Professor Fujiwara expressed concerns about the tendency to view it increasingly in an anti-Chinese fashion, while the guarantee of regional peace lies precisely in the inclusion, not the exclusion, of China.

Graduate Student Sessions (14:00-18:30)

There were two graduate sessions, both on the question of ASEAN and its Security Partners, which were chaired by Professor Kiichi Fujiwara (University of Tokyo) and by Professor Heng Yee Kuang respectively. Among the contributors to the panel were two graduate students from the University of Tokyo, namely Mr. Nagafumi Nakamura, presenting a paper on “Issue Separation Policy” and the Debate on the Commercial Peace: The Escalated Territorial Tensions between Japan and China caused by “Cold Politics and Hot Economic Policy”, and Ms. Meichuan Tsao, who presented her paper entitled The Policy Adjustment and Implication of China's Regional Cooperation—The Cases of GMS & ASEAN.