photo (Foreign Minister Taro Aso)

Speech by Mr. Taro Aso, Minister for Foreign Affairs
On the Occasion of the 12th Nikkei International Conference on "The Future of Asia"

"A Networked Asia": Conceptualizing a Future

May 26, 2006


Thank you very much for your kind introduction.

When you are in the position of Minister for Foreign Affairs, you find that there are so many acronyms to contend with that sometimes it is almost impossible to keep track of what is what.

At the beginning of May I traveled to Brussels, Belgium to attend the NAC meeting-that's N-A-C, standing for the North Atlantic Council, the most senior decision-making body of NATO. While there, I delivered a speech, becoming the first Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs to participate in a NAC meeting.

Just yesterday, I arrived back in Japan from a visit to Doha, Qatar, where there was a meeting of the ACD that I attended. I believe that you are already familiar with this from the newspapers or TV, since while I was there I held talks with the foreign ministers of China and the Republic of Korea.

This acronym "ACD" stands for "Asia Cooperation Dialogue," and this forum originated from a proposal made by Thailand. As you can gather from the name, it represents an opportunity for countries to explore dialogue on various topics. This year marked the fifth such meeting.

There are 28 countries participating in the Dialogue, a considerable number. Countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia also participate, with the foreign ministers from the ACD countries all gathering together under one roof. This is not the place for me to be going into detail about the ACD, so I will leave my comments at that for today, but there is a great deal of information about it on the MOFA website, and I hope that you take a look at it if it is of interest to you.

As you know, while I was in Doha, I had bilateral talks with both Minister of Foreign Affairs & Trade of the Republic of Korea Ban Gi Moon and Foreign Minister of China Li Zhaoxing. I imagine that you must be very interested in what transpired, so let me touch upon that a bit now. I spoke with both Minister Ban and also with Minister Li for a solid hour and a half each, and we covered a variety of topics over the course of these very earnest discussions.

If I were to sum up the outcome of our talks briefly, I would have to say that while indeed there are various issues that exist between Japan and these two countries, we were able to confirm our common view that we must keep our eyes on the larger picture and create forward-looking relationships, promoting dialogue and exchanges across a wide spectrum of fields, with the future of Asia as a whole firmly in mind. Our discussions this week have given me great expectations that we are on the verge of a shift towards improved relations.

To tie that in with the main theme of my address today, let us look for a minute at the topic of youth exchanges. High school student exchanges with China, which I myself have been promoting actively in a variety of settings, have already seen the first group of some 200 students visiting Japan. I took this opportunity to propose to Minister Ban a plan to have active youth exchanges between Japan and the Republic of Korea in the form of homestay programs, and Minister Ban reacted very positively to that idea.

In addition, we discussed the topic of regional cooperation in the form of an East Asian community, which is something that I would like to touch upon in greater detail later on in my remarks. I was able during my talks with both Minister Li and Minister Ban to confirm that we share a common view that, first of all, in order for such a community to generate benefits for the entirety of Asia, it is critical that there be cooperation between Japan and both China and the Republic of Korea, and second, that it is crucial for Japan-China and Japan-Republic of Korea relationships to be firmly grounded in this broader view. Of course, we also confirmed our mutual will to continue our cooperation in dealing with North Korea's nuclear and abduction issues.

Now, getting back to the ACD and the significance of my recent trip, as I mentioned just a minute ago, there are various kinds of new networks such as this that have emerged throughout Asia. As for me, I feel that this word "network" holds one of the keys for what I will be discussing today, though actually it has been since I became Foreign Minister that I have come to be so deeply impressed by it.

I have for many years considered the question of how we should conceptually frame the future of Asia, along with the topic of how we should picture Japan's place within it.

Today, I would like to share with you a taste of that, including various thoughts I have had since becoming responsible for Japan's diplomacy. That said, I do not want to take up topics in too much detail, but rather provide you with something much more simple and straightforward. Those of us living here in Asia have absolutely no reason whatsoever to have to be pessimistic in our outlook, and this is what I want to emphasize in my remarks to you today.

Insights Gained through the Spread of SARS

Think back for a minute about what was happening in the world three years ago at about this time. There was a newly-discovered, formidable infectious disease that was wreaking havoc in various parts of Asia.

What was on everyone's mind at the time was the question of how far this disease, known as SARS-Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-would spread, with everyone keeping vigilant watch over the situation, white-knuckled. In the end, as you know, SARS would claim almost 800 lives.

I hope that you do not misinterpret the spirit behind my next comment, but in looking at the way in which this fearsome disease spread, it occurred to me that, as abhorrent a situation as it was, it might perhaps be proof of just how dynamically in motion the Asian region is-even more so than I had imagined.

By this I mean that infectious diseases by their very nature are unable to spread in an environment in which people and things merely stay where they are, inert in set places. The very fact that SARS spread with such extreme rapidity to China, Viet Nam, Hong Kong, and Singapore is surely a powerful endorsement of the degree to which Asia enjoys vibrant and vigorous exchanges of people and goods.

That is to say, it is because it was Asia, which has made great strides forward regardless of national boundaries, that SARS was also able to spread with such rapidity. Moreover, it was because the countries of the Asian region worked in close cooperation that we were able to successfully overcome that menace. Thus, this threat known as SARS, from its initial outbreak to its ultimate resolution, was very instructive to me about certain new realities in Asia.

And so, I wish to remind all of you here today that Asia is now in fact an intricately-linked network.

Only Yesterday....

We generally think of a span of thirty years as constituting one generation.

Now if we were to look back a single generation-that is, to 1976-what would we find?

In China, 1976 was the year in which both giants of the revolution, Zhou Enlai and then Mao Zedong, passed away, finally heralding the end of the Cultural Revolution.

In Viet Nam and other countries of Indochina, the fighting taking place could only be said to have died down nominally, and the tragedy that was to befall Cambodia was still to come.

Japan's policies towards Asia at that time were, as a point of fact, still lacking in certain respects. Since post-war reparations had not yet been completed, it was only in this year, when Japan concluded its final reparations to the Philippines and thereby passed a milestone in its post-war dealings, that Japan was for the first time able to formulate what would be her own Asia policy.

Those of you here today are likely to have forgotten this, but there were post-war reconstruction funds that we had thought the United States had provided to us for free-the GARIOA and EROA funds-which amounted over 1.8 billion US dollars. Japan was able to use these funds in procuring the coal and iron ore necessary for its post-war priority production, and certainly these funds were of great assistance to us, but in 1948, they were suddenly deemed a loan package instead of a grant package, and Japan was ordered to repay them.

Japan spent seven years negotiating this situation with the United States with great tenacity, but in 1951 Japan finally conceded the point and agreed to reimburse the United States for the portion of about 500 million dollars. We then went about paying it back at any cost. Japan worked desperately to pay the loans off, making its payments ahead of schedule and finally repaying the last of the debt in 1973. However we look at it, 1976 was a mere three years since Japan had completed repaying its debts from the occupation era. So that is where Japan stood at that time, if you look back.

And now thirty years have passed. If you now look back to thirty years ago and the long way we have traveled since then, you will certainly feel deeply moved, will you not?

What Defines "Asians"

If this is the case, then it seems to me that we can now define Asians in the following way.

Asians are inherent optimists from the moment they are born. Of course this is because Asians have, in the span of only a single generation, succeeded in making such a quantum leap and are truly great achievers.

We Asians are the embodiment of the quintessential rags to riches success story. Take a look around you. Where else can you find people who have rocketed forward at such a speed and covered so much ground in the span of a mere thirty years?

Now "Asia" is another name for the most active network for trade anywhere on the globe. In addition, Asia remains the source of the richest stockpile of savings to be found anywhere on the planet.

If you look at per capita GDP, for example in any of the major ASEAN countries, you will find that it has grown by three to six times over the past thirty years.

Now, if that is the case, then Asia is an assembling of a burgeoning middle class. And "Asians," then, is another word for a people who always stride ahead, chins up, looking towards the future.

But what may be more important than the economic aspect is the psychological revolution that Asians have achieved over these thirty years. What I am referring to here is the fact that Asians have started to realize that Asians themselves are beautiful.

Take a look at the schoolgirls in Kuala Lumpur, the young boys in Beijing, the junior high students in Hanoi, or high school students in Jakarta and what you will find is that the people who they find to be all the rave are no longer only the people appearing on Hollywood's silver screen. They no longer look only to Paris for inspiration regarding fashion. This is the first time that Asians have stars created by-and for-themselves, fads that they themselves launched and they themselves are consuming voraciously.

We are beautiful. Whether or not Asians actually say those words explicitly, the fact is that this is what they are now thinking. And that same thought is also conveyed in song. Asia is, after all, the United States of Karaoke, and through karaoke we lift our voices in song. Whether Japanese songs or Korean-no matter. It seems that the American songs we sang when we were young have pretty much disappeared. Incidentally, when we talk of karaoke, this great invention first generated a boom here in Japan in just about 1976 or 1977. In other words, karaoke too is a major craze that has come about over these last thirty years.

And so, look at what happened over the span of thirty years: the age in which we share a common vision of the "Asian Dream" has arrived. Our quantum leap forward that we accomplished in a single generation has brought us to where we are today.

Expectations for a "Knowledge Network"

Now, if this is the case, then that leads me to certain thoughts which I would like to share with you today.

Thirty years from now-that is, in the year 2036-what will Asia be like?

I have a daughter who just began her university studies this year. Thirty years from now, her generation will be the backbone of society, and at a time in their lives when they will be investing themselves thoroughly in their work. As a parent myself, it goes without saying that I hope that Asia at that time is an even better place to live and a place of true happiness.

We have in just a single generation springboarded to where we are now. Tell me, where is there any reason to think that we won't be able to do even more over the course of these next thirty years?

I hope you will forgive me for digressing slightly here, but I would like you to think for a minute about what kinds of articles you expect to read in the newspaper on the first day of the new year. You expect to see something upbeat-the journalistic equivalent to an otoshidama New Year's gift, yes? Yet I remember even to this day the blazing headline on the front page of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun on New Year's Day 1997: "Japan Set to Disappear."

Now, even having been told that Japan would soon be disappearing, I knew that the paper certainly did not mean that Japan would be rubbed out somehow with an eraser, and so I began reading the story to find out what exactly they were referring to. I found the coverage to be pessimistic in the extreme, saying things like, "Reform at a Standstill, Old Before Its Time" and "Detached isolation in global society; lonely isolation of individuals." More unbelievably, the subheader read, "A shadow of death now looms over Tokyo." Even now I remember thinking what a stunning thing this was to witness.

When public opinion becomes pessimistic overall, it is a fact that the economy deteriorates soon after. And if I were to borrow an expression from the market, it is often the case that the depths of pessimistic gloom are sometimes what set the stage for further development to take place. If you actually look back at what transpired in 1997, I think you will remember that that was the year that dissemination of the Internet really picked up speed. What comes up must come down, and for something now down to rise once more is the way the world goes round, and so it seems to me that we always need to take these extremely pessimistic, shrieking arguments with a large grain of salt.

And now all the more, I can think of no reason whatsoever that we need to be pessimistic with regard to the future of Asia. I will return to the topic of SARS once more in saying that this is because, in the same way that that fearsome disease unexpectedly demonstrated to us, Asia is a network which is always developing in some way.

The people who understand this best are probably the CEOs of Japanese corporations that have been developing their operations in various countries across Asia. Having created specialized networks which are broken down by particular components or processes, Japanese corporations are flexibly and resourcefully pursuing cost-benefit balances all around Asia. You might suddenly recognize, now that I mention it, that arguments citing strongly fixed images have all but disappeared, such as the argument that the rise of some Country X or Y or Z will result in a hollowing out of Japan's industrial base.

What's more, what is interesting about networks is that when you have the number of participants increase from, say, three people to five-an increase of two people-the number of circuits you need to interconnect them all jumps from three to ten. That is, networks are things which expand exponentially.

So, to the extent that Asia is an open network which promotes the free exchange and flow of people, goods, and money, it exists as a "circle of knowledge," so to speak, and it will certainly continue to grow exponentially.

It is this that will constitute the key to solving the many problems that lie in store for us in future years.

My optimism should not be misunderstood to mean that I am arguing that there will never be any problems in the future.

The aging of society is an issue of great significance which Japan will need to tackle first, but which Korea and, not long after, China will also have to confront. However, the aging of society is not a bad thing in and of itself. With regard to this point, Japan should take the lead in demonstrating a model for the region as a whole to emulate, maturing and bringing about a vibrant and dynamic aging society.

Even for such critical issues for growth as how to overcome limitations in food self-sufficiency and energy resources-both of these being problems the entire human race must face-the issue is as clear as day. At the same time it is impossible for us to ignore the degradation of the natural environment, and in this case as well it needs to be Asians who serve as the front runners in implementing various measures.

But for me to remain a steadfast optimist despite all this is a result of none other than a strong belief in the network which I have been speaking of today. To put it more simply, it may indeed be the case that "two heads are better than one," but increase those numbers just a bit and you will see what great potential for knowledge exists-45 channels opening when you have ten people participating; 190 channels opening when you have twenty people involved.

Therefore, this is a concept which places confidence in the "knowledge network" of Asia.

In order for us to overcome the issue of environmental degradation, it is clear that we must work seriously towards efficiency in energy utilization. With regard to this point, Japan has been at it a little longer than any other nation, and I think I do not even need to cite the example of the hybrid car here to prove my point. With regard to the stable supply of energy and its efficient use, there is no doubt that should a network be formed which enhances the cooperation existing between policymaking and technological development, Japan would be well qualified to serve as a leader in that area.

Looking at the economy of East Asia next, we find that more than half of total trade for this subregion is conducted within the East Asia subregion itself, demonstrating how tightly-knit the area truly is. Insofar as the strength of a network lies in this very fact-that is, in others being able to derive benefits even while I derive benefits-it is necessary to create a network which generates mutually beneficial situations.

If I may delve into some details here, as the basis for such a network, what we really need is a function by which accurate data and statistics covering the entire region could be compiled, which would then be subject to detailed analyses from both theoretical and policy-making perspectives, ultimately facilitating the generation of proposals and recommendations. In particular, having served as the Minister for the Economic Planning Agency when ASEAN+3 was launched nine years ago, I am acutely aware of how vital data and statistics really are.

In the area of the creation of think-tank functions at the level of the Asia-Pacific region, which is one possible outcome of the compilation of these statistics and the existence of a "knowledge network," here too Japan would like very much to serve as one of the countries taking the lead.

However, at the same time, when we get into areas such as the consolidation of peace and nation-building activities, the fact is that the number of specialists in this area is still far from ideal. In my policy speech to lead off the current session of the Diet, I stated that I wish to "develop in Asia human resources with expertise, who will be capable of taking on activities in the areas of peacekeeping, peace-building, and prevention of recurrence of conflict."

Asia, including Japan, has amassed a wealth of experience in peace building in such locations as Cambodia, East Timor, Aceh, and Mindanao, among others. Furthermore, countries which are contributing actively to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations are by no means limited only to Japan. It will be necessary to create a setup through which Asia is able to develop human resources which can successfully work towards peace building, making use of Asia's experiences to date and drawing on knowledge and know-how broadly from around the globe. Currently, my hope is to create more opportunities in the near future for in-depth discussion of this idea in the countries of Asia.

In any event, I believe that if we pool our strengths and compensate for each others' shortcomings, there will be no challenges that we will be unable to solve.

I have in the past given a speech on the topic of Japan as a "thought leader," in reflection of the fact that Japan will be encountering various challenging situations at an earlier time than other countries. However, in keeping with what I have laid out for you thus far, it seems virtually certain to me that the Asia of the future will possess a knowledge network which is spread out extensively, both broadly and deeply, and Asia as a whole will deserve to be an individual thought leader towards the globe.

Going beyond the Mold of the "Nation State" and the Pitfalls of Nationalism

As you are now well aware, the vision that I have painted for the future image of Asia is that of a network. Patriotic person that I am, I have also discussed today my strong hope that within this network, Japan will be a country which uses the strength of her wisdom as the source of her leadership ability.

I want to reformulate those thoughts here for a minute.

I have a dream that through this network format, the Asia of the future will be released from the spell cast by, for better or for worse, the most influential inventions emerging from the modern age, which I also consider to be poisons.

These poisons that have emerged in the modern era are that which is called the nation state, and that which is known as nationalism, defined as a philosophy under which one's own ethnic group constitutes the focal point.

These two are the ideas that account for those thick black lines that spread across our maps defining national boundaries. And at times they have even led to the idea that it was encouraged to push those lines forcibly further and further outward, expanding the borders. Even without going that far, it results in the idea that nations are isolated in hard shells. This in turn promotes not conversations but confrontations.

I would be remiss if I were to focus too much on other countries' examples; Japan herself once had the experience of being intoxicated by the idea of the nation-state and by nationalism.

And so I say to you here today that the Asia of the future must not get entangled in the mold that forms nation states, nor in the trap that is nationalism. What has made Asia quintessentially Asia is its free and open network, and it is imperative that we make that network more flexible and yielding in the future, as well as even more dynamic.

And so it is exactly this point that confirms me as an optimist second to none, this claim that Asia is certain to expand as a great network society into the future as well.

The model for this is already here at hand, is it not?

ASEAN, which has continued to the present day without ever losing its strength as a collective body, has served as one of the driving forces in making Asia into an enormous network. On that foundation, ASEAN+3 was later created, and last year we saw the East Asia Summit (EAS) launched.

The EAS, which adds the democracies of India, Australia, and New Zealand to the nations of ASEAN+3, will play a role in making the Asian network even more affluent. I believe that there will be enormous benefits if the EAS serves as a fertile and predominant seedbed for cultivating Asia's knowledge network. Among the noteworthy ideas is one of bringing together scientists and other eminent persons who would represent the greatest knowledge that the countries of the EAS have to offer. Gathered under one roof, these eminent persons would discuss how such a network could be put to optimal use, as well as the ways in which the network should be developed into the future. If we could convene such a meeting, which would be a veritable summit of Asia's intellectual leaders, I feel it would help this knowledge network realize an even more substantial impact.

Working towards the Asian Dream

We have now reached the point in which we can discuss a dream community shared in common throughout Asia. In order to make the metaphors which used until now more concrete, we can think of it as a settlement in which a refreshing breeze blows through and among the houses, much the same as happens in traditional houses in Japan and Indonesia. The community is tolerant and open towards others. Even when the community is faced with multiple challenges, the community takes its collective wisdom and forges ahead to find solutions at any and every opportunity. It is a network in which people reach out to others and in which experiences are shared collectively.

The degree of depth of the experiences that each country brings with it may very well be different. But insofar as a network is a network, there are no distinctions made over what might be considered superior or inferior to any other.

As someone once said, when everyone begins to see the same dream, it begins to take shape and become reality. The history of Asia over the last thirty years has certainly served as ample proof to the validity of that saying, has it not?

It may be that my address to you here today was a bit too flowery and out of character for me. What we can do starting tomorrow, and, indeed, what we have done until now, have not been changed in the slightest.

If we look at the things that made Asia what it is today-working intently, sharing knowledge and experiences, and taking opportunities to build up our dialogues so that we can hold in common both our successes and failures, notably, within that, learning from each others' best practices with regard to both politics and economics-we find that these are also the very things that we can do starting tomorrow; there is no change.

And yet now it is possible that the same labor, the same efforts can be undertaken as we look at a dream some thirty years into the future. And if it is that we move forward with a distant vision of a peaceful community in which houses that allow the breeze to flow through will be built, it will be all the difference in the world as we fumble for each others' hands in the darkness.

I will repeat myself here by saying that Asians have been able to come to the point that they have a powerful self-identity which they now call their own. In this way, Asians are people who hold their dreams dear. I hope that all of you here take a minute to stop and look back on the road we have traveled to get to this point, and join me in congratulating yourselves on the achievements that have come about thus far. That is where you can find a source of self-confidence, and with your eyes on the prospects for thirty years into the future, let us venture into the future one step at a time.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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