A New Era for Japan and the Pacific Islands: The Tokyo Summit

By Finin, Gerard A.; Wesley-Smith, Terence | Asia - Pacific Issues, September 1997 | Go to article overview

A New Era for Japan and the Pacific Islands: The Tokyo Summit


Finin, Gerard A., Wesley-Smith, Terence, Asia - Pacific Issues


Japan Hosts a Summit

After 30 years of gradually increasing activity in the Pacific Islands region, Japan has organized its first summit with Pacific Island nations. Scheduled for October 13-14, 1997, the Tokyo meeting will include a keynote address by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and a day-long meeting with Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda. The importance of the event is underscored by the presence of Emperor Akihito, who will host a reception for the delegates. Japan has invited the presidents and prime ministers of the 16 independent and self-governing nations (including Australia and New Zealand),1 that belong to the South Pacific Forum, the region's key political organization (see p. 11). The chairman of the Forum is the prime minister of the Cook Islands, the Honorable Sir Geoffrey Henry, KBE. Not invited to the summit are traditional Pacific powers France, Great Britain, and the United States, nor their Pacific dependencies, none of which are members of the South Pacific Forum.

The summit's objective, according to Japan, a major aid donor to the region, is to explore new ways of achieving economic self-sufficiency in the Pacific Islands region (map, p. 5), which includes some of the most aid dependent nations in the world (see pp. 8-9). Trade, investment, and tourism are among the topics to be discussed.

But Japan's motives for the summit are far more complex, and include a determination to cement relations with countries whose vast marine Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) are rich in as-yet-untapped seabed minerals, possess the bulk of the world's tuna, and whose larger islands contain gold, oil, gas, copper, timber, and other raw materials. In addition, Japan is aware of China's growing diplomatic and economic activity in the region, fueled in part by a rivalry with an equally active Taiwan. Finally, Japan may well feel that it has both an obligation and an opportunity to expand its role in the region at a time when other countries are reducing their presence.

Stepping to the Fore?

The summit comes at a time when the United States has reduced its diplomatic and economic profile south of the equator and is implementing planned reductions of its massive subsidies to the Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of the Marshall Islands. Furthermore, the compacts of free association, which have guaranteed U.S. funding to these Micronesian nations since 1986, are due to expire in 2001.2 Great Britain's 1995 withdrawal from the 50year old South Pacific Commission, a regional organization it helped found, signaled its final retreat from what had been a major role in Pacific Island affairs. Other metropolitan actors, most notably France and New Zealand, retain dependent territories and are keenly interested in regional affairs, but lack the resources to increase their engagement. Australia's long-term security interests, especially in Melanesia, have not diminished, however, and Australia remains the Pacific Islands' largest aid donor (though 80 percent of its aid goes to Papua New Guinea, its former colony). Japan is the next largest donor, with its aid distributed more evenly among the island nations.

Pacific Island leaders generally welcome Japan's increasing involvement in their region and have actively sought high-level recognition in Tokyo. Leaders in the United States, France, and the other "metropolitan" countries active in the Pacific are generally sanguine about Japan's rise to prominence, even though it arguably represents the most significant reconfiguration of regional power relations since World War II. In general, they view Japan's activities as complementing rather than compromising their own interests and agendas. Tokyo has not demonstrated a desire to translate its considerable de facto influence into an explicit bid for regional dominance and has seemed content to work cooperatively with the more established regional actors. Those actors will be alert to the possibility that the summit, for Japan, may signal a move away from a posture characterized as "leading from behind"3 toward a more assertive leadership role. …

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