By Daniel Leussink
TOKYO - At first glance, Yoshio Hachiro and Masahiko Yamada look like they have been cut from the same piece of wood. Both men worked in agriculture for decades before turning to politics.
Sixty-three-year-old Hachiro was a general manager of a rural farming cooperative in Hokkaido, Japan's most northern prefecture. He promoted Imakane Danshaku, locally grown potatoes considered such a delicacy that they are sold individually wrapped in Tokyo's ritzy and posh department stores.
Yamada, 69, is a farmer, a lawyer as well as a veteran member of the Lower House of parliament and a native from an island 100 kilometers west of the southern prefecture Nagasaki. He is the author of several books on the perceived threat to agriculture in Japan, including Japan will be crushed by imported food and Japan to be smashed by China on food. He also published a novel on food security called The Japan-US food war. 
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has announced his nation entered into preliminary talks to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional economic pact under negotiation by nine nations across the Asia-Pacific, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii earlier this month.
But Japan's involvement in the TPP has stirred a lot of debate in Japan. It is the only case of a regional economic pact that is moving forward. Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper that has the highest circulation in the world, has published six editorials in favor of Japan's participation in TPP this month.
Noda's decision also pitched the farming barons Hachiro and Yamada fiercely against one another. Hachiro is strongly in favor of joining the TPP, while Yamada opposes starting the negotiation process, wanting to postpone it to a later date.
"Japan is committed to becoming a trading and investment nation and as a result this is a very important step for us," said Hachiro shortly after Noda announced Japan's intention to enter into preliminary talks with TPP member nations to join the pact.
"Japan must have a very high level system in place in this area to achieve very high standards for trade and investment. Thus, our government must take a leadership role."
"Prime Minister Noda was trying to say that the fundamental intent of the Japanese government is to begin entering the TPP negotiations as quickly as possible because Japan wants to take an active role to create the rules that are going to be decided in the agreement," he said. "That is the most important meaning behind his words."
Hachiro is the head of a project team on TPP within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). His team has held more than 25 meeting for over 50 discussion hours since it was established on October 4, he told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. Within the DPJ, deliberations to start talks to enter the TPP negotiation process begun in November last year.
"I believe that although there are many similar project teams in Japan, this was very unusual in that it had very intense discussions," said Hachiro, who was forced to resign in September as trade minister over a gaffe he made hurting the feelings of evacuees from the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
"Many voices were raised that it was too early for Japan to announce its entry into the TPP process. We included a recommendation in our proposal that the government should take all these concerns into consideration and reach their decision in a very cautious and very careful manner."
Over 500 politicians, both members of the Lower and Upper House, made comments on the TPP during the project meetings, reflecting a cacophony of opinions within the ruling party on Japan's entry into negotiations for joining the economic pact. The final report of the project team refrained to give Noda a direct recommendation whether or not Japan should enter into negotiations, which is a cabinet decision.
Meanwhile, former agricultural minister Yamada organized a group of more than 220 lawmakers from the ruling party, coalition partners and independents, who were against entering the negotiation process, in a bid to raise the voices of those who oppose the pact.
"The TPP has the potential to change the shape of our nation. It has the possibility to change our daily lives," said Yamada. "As a result, voices of opposition are raised not only from the agricultural sector but from other sectors as well. Many of the lawmakers in our group represent other sectors besides agriculture."
The trade agreement "could ruin the country's medical system," Ryotaro Tanose, a top official for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, said during a November 13 debate on NHK, reported the Wall Street Journal.
Yamada's group asked for more time to study the benefits of TPP before entering into talks to join the negotiation process. "We are not so much against TPP, because there is no TPP contract and there are no TPP rules in place yet. But our group says that this needs further study," said Yamada.
He emphasized that his group was in favor of strong relations with the United States and other TPP member nations and in favor of free trade.
But he also warned that Japan may lose its rights to set tariffs independently from other nations if it joined the TPP. He compared the TPP to the Kansei Reforms of the 19th century, after which Japan did not retrieve its rights to set its own tariffs until after the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905.
"There is a possibility that Japan could lose its right to set its own tariffs," he said. "We believe that the right to set a country's tariffs is a right inherent in every sovereign nation state."
The TPP agreement goes beyond many other more low-key free-trade agreements in that it does more than regulating tariffs. It aims to create a high-quality agreement that will regulate goods, services, investment, capital and labor in 21 different areas including agriculture, healthcare and insurance.
At a recent forum on Japan's earthquake revitalization that brought together policymakers, businessmen, academics and former politicians and trade negotiators from across the Asia-Pacific region in a variety of panel discussions, critics pointed out that the government had not done enough to pinpoint the benefits for joining TPP.
The government "has not done a great job of explaining the benefits, and the debate has become emotionally charged," said Yoko Ishikura, a professor specialized in business strategy and competitiveness at Keio University. "We need to ask: 'What if Japan doesn't join? That could be a bigger risk," she said....
America pivots toward ASEAN, desperate to save its crumbling Zioconned Evil Empire....
By Donald K Emmerson
KAMPIAL, Indonesia - To the sounds of a gamelan orchestra, white-dressed Balinese pay ritual homage to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and learning. The timing is apt as over a thousand journalists and others try to divine the significance of a week of high-level diplomacy held on the island, including the 6th East Asia Summit (EAS), the 19th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, and other ASEAN-linked events.
Declinism is in vogue in the United States, to the point that the normally sober Foreign Affairs asks, tongue in cheek, "Is America Over?" on the cover of its current issue. As a number of Asian speakers have noted this week in Bali, their region is now the brightest spot in a darkening world economy.
One might expect these Asians to think that the West is toast - to relish their own risen profile with feelings of pride tinged with Schadenfreude. The theme of this week's summitry - "ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations" - purposely evokes the wider role to which Southeast Asian leaders now aspire.
At a conference last week in Kuala Lumpur, a Malaysian friend predicted Chinese supremacy in Asia. A few days later, a Singaporean colleague warned me that the United States, dangerously in debt, could ruin itself and the world by sheer selfishness and incompetence. Neither of these informants felt satisfaction in the face of American decline, however, and their opinions did not reflect the prevailing views at the summits in Bali.
Southeast Asians here have not written off the United States. But they have, to a modest extent, written it down - and they could, in future, depending on events, write it back up. Indeed that upward tick may already have begun here in Bali with the first-ever presence of an American president, Barack Obama, at the EAS.
The basis for this contingent and variable view of the United States, on the downside and the upside alike, is partly of Washington's own making. In shifting away from its predecessor's reputation for unilateralism toward working more readily with other countries in multilateral settings, the Obama administration has necessarily reduced its own relative stature abroad. In a crowd, one stands out less.
At the same time, however, in pivoting away from potentially failing experiments beyond the Atlantic - the euro, Iraq, Afghanistan - and toward the increasingly Asian drivers of the world economy, Obama's foreign-policy team has begun to reverse the erosion of American standing here.
Pivoting does not mean turning completely around, of course. Trans-Atlantic concerns and winding down wars, not to mention domestic economic and political turmoil, are still on Washington's screen. Nor is a pivot a full-scale embrace: US differences with ASEAN remain. A case in point, it would seem, is the group's recent decision to allow Myanmar to chair ASEAN in 2014.
Yes you may, Myanmar
The Myanmar junta's repressive ways long made it a pariah in American (and European) eyes. But ASEAN's customary alphabetic rotation pegged the regime to lead the organization in 2006. Washington more or less threatened to boycott meetings of the group if the junta chaired them, at least the ones held inside Myanmar.
In mid-2005, under pressure from other ASEAN states, the ruling generals "volunteered" to postpone their country's turn. ASEAN accepted the junta's offer to stand aside, and Myanmar was removed from the queue on the understanding that it could rejoin the rotation later on, implicitly contingent on evidence of reform.
The evidence arrived. Myanmar's constrained elections in November 2010 were followed by further loosening of the generals' grip. Naypyidaw asked ASEAN for permission to get back in line to assume the chair for 2014. American policymakers and politicians were troubled by this prospect, not to mention activists for civil and human rights.
ASEAN could have postponed replying to Myanmar's request, after all. There was no overriding need to decide the 2014 rotation in November 2011, more than two years in advance. A wait-and-see attitude would have maintained pressure on Naypyidaw - no ongoing reform, no chair.
On November 17, at their summit here in Bali, ASEAN leaders chose otherwise. Myanmar would be allowed to take the chair for 2014. Reportedly, only two ASEAN members had significant doubts about the wisdom of acceding to Naypyidaw's request. The Philippines wanted ASEAN to retain leverage in the interest of democracy and civil rights, while Singapore feared that Naypyidaw's chairmanship could prove to be a damaging distraction.
Singapore appears to have worried that, between now and then, the Myanmar regime might reverse course and crack down. Were that to occur, the ensuing political controversy could distract the ASEAN states when they should be focused on erecting an ASEAN Economic Community in time for its inauguration in 2015.
Singapore's technocracy also likely doubted Myanmar's competence to lead anyone, let alone a grouping of 10 diverse and sometimes contentious states. That skepticism was visible between the lines of the quasi-official Straits Times' description of Myanmar as "beset by grinding poverty and economic dysfunction", burdened with primitive banking and judicial systems, and challenged by ethnic insurgents and criminals trafficking in "vast quantities of heroin and methamphetamines sold across Asia".
Whoever wins the 2012 American presidential election will have to decide whether to attend ASEAN meetings chaired by Myanmar in 2014. The conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, has already advised against doing so. Provided Myanmar continues to reform, however, the narrow difference between ASEAN's green light and Washington's preference for an amber one need not disrupt US-ASEAN relations.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has begun to pivot in ASEAN's direction on Myanmar. Hillary Clinton will visit the country on December 1-2, the first such trip by an American secretary of state in some 50 years. That said, however, traveling to Myanmar and agreeing to be led by it are two different things.
ASEAN's decision this week in Bali to welcome Myanmar as its future chair on the day before it welcomed Obama to the EAS is a useful reminder that the diminishing diplomatic distance between the United States and ASEAN is no guarantee that they will ultimately converge, or stay, on the same page.
Indeed, there is no assurance that the distance will continue to diminish. In the packed schedule and celebratory mood that pervaded the summitry in Bali, there was little time or inclination to ponder the potentially controversial implications of the English alphabet as it has been tweaked to determine the upcoming sequence of ASEAN chairs. In that rotational context, at least two concerns could impact American cooperation with Southeast Asia: democratic values and strategic alignment.
The US-based Freedom House annually classifies countries as "Free", "Partly Free" or "Not Free". By its estimation, Indonesia, the outgoing (2011) chair of ASEAN, is the only "Free" state in Southeast Asia. Every one of the next four heads of ASEAN is presently "Not Free", namely, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar and Laos - in that order from now through 2015. (In addition, it will be Vietnam's turn to contribute a secretary general to administer ASEAN beginning on January 1, 2013.)
If the American pivot remains in place and reforms in Myanmar stall or are reversed, Washington would be well advised to prepare for a series of more or less authoritarian leaders as its leading partners in Southeast Asia in the years ahead.
Related to democratic values is strategic alignment. For decades analysts have distinguished inside Southeast Asia two tiers of states: a continental set in the north and a maritime one in the south. Geographically, the northern subgroup is closer to China (and less democratic) than is the southern one.
Proximity need not engender deference. The most obvious instance of that truth is Vietnam, whose location adjacent to China has had, if anything, the opposite effect. Vietnam's distrust of its huge northern neighbor, historically based in experiences of ancient domination and modern incursion, is currently reflected in and reinforced by tensions between Hanoi and Beijing over the South China Sea.
Vietnam aside, however, the other northern-tier states - Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos - are more plausible candidates for eventual absorption into a China-centered sphere than are their fellow ASEAN members farther south.
On the last day of this week of summitry in Bali, two things were said that the media overlooked but were likely important for the future of America's ASEAN pivot. First, upon receiving the symbolic gavel to begin Cambodia's year as ASEAN's chair starting on January 1, 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced his government's priorities for the group.
The one he stressed most was "connectivity", which is ASEAN-speak for forging linkages of infrastructure and communications. The complex and changing maps of such connections - existing, underway and proposed - include grids and vectors of traffic in people, goods and ideas running east-west and north-south across the region.
Connectivity has two faces: internal and external. Building and bettering infrastructural links can speed the internal integration of Southeast Asia - a key condition for the success of the Economic Community that ASEAN hopes to inaugurate in 2015. But connectivity can also enhance the ability of outside states to penetrate Southeast Asia - trading, investing, and thereby enhancing their relative clout in the region.
In principle, connectivity can involve and benefit any of ASEAN's neighbors. But no non-regional state has a longer land border with Southeast Asia than China. Beijing's support for north-south connections across that lengthy boundary makes sense in this larger, political context.
In championing connectivity, one could argue, ASEAN's incoming Cambodian chair is facilitating the enlargement of Chinese influence over the region - or at least over its northern tier. Phnom Penh already has acquired something of a reputation inside ASEAN for being its most "pro-Beijing" member.
The second bit of unreported news occurred when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was asked at a press conference what could be done to sustain the momentum that ASEAN had acquired under his country's leadership.
Yudhoyono remarked in reply that although Indonesia was no longer in the chair, it would serve in 2012 on an ASEAN troika made up of the 2011 (Indonesian), 2012 (Cambodian), and 2013 (Bruneian) chairs. Although he did not openly say so, one could infer from his comment that Yudhoyono was not wholly sanguine as to the direction in which Hun Sen might try to take ASEAN in 2012.
This is not to predict that the American pivot toward ASEAN will be rebuffed in the coming Cambodia-led year. But US-ASEAN relations could get more not less interesting between now and the moment in 2015 when the small, dirt-poor, neo-Leninist, one-party state of Laos is slated to host what ASEANists are hoping will be an impressively grand occasion: the epochal birth of an ASEAN Community.
The island of Bali is a long way from landlocked Laos. But in view of the successful diplomacy this past week in Indonesia, and for the sake of balance in ASEAN's image and role in the larger world, one can hope that the wisdom of the Hindu goddess Saraswati will inspire the group's northern leaders as well....
1. The titles of Yamada's books are provisional translations from the original Japanese.
Daniel Leussink is a Dutch journalist in Tokyo.