TOKYO • It is crucial that Japan and China lead Asia in tandem to achieve greater integration, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday, urging both countries to set aside their rivalry and historical mistrust.
"It will not work as well if only one country leads the charge. And if both countries provide competitive but divergent leadership, it will be destabilising," he said at the Nikkei Future of Asia conference.
"The lack of trust due to history is expected... But at some stage, both sides must cut the shackles of the anchor and move forward."
This vision, Mr Goh admitted, was "a little idealistic". But even so, he said Asia will never be able to achieve its full potential without good Sino-Japanese relations.
By being able to work together despite their differences, they can set the stage for other bilateral relationships to grow, including US- China and Japan-South Korea ties.
And building up interdependency is the best way to resist the tide of protectionism, Mr Goh said.
In Asia, such ties are evident in its more than 150 effective free trade agreements and areas, which account for 58 per cent of the global total. This, said Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in a separate session, showed "Asia is leading in international integration".
Going forward, Mr Goh said, Japan and China can take the lead as Asia's top two economies and vocal proponents of free trade.
Japan is now spearheading the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and Mr Goh said Tokyo should extend an invite to Beijing when the latter is ready to join the pact.
Small countries, too, have their part to play, he said, as they are non-threatening, outward-looking and can "propose creative ideas without raising suspicions of an ulterior motive".
"But they need to advance their interests based on principles and not take sides based on a patron- client relationship," he said. For instance, the TPP had its roots in a P4 agreement involving Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore.
Mr Goh warned that a shift towards bilateral deals from multilateral arrangements is like "a yokozuna (a grand champion sumo wrestler) taking on smaller-sized wrestlers one at a time".
He feared the "Me First" phenomenon could devolve into a "Me Only" one that unravels the global cooperation needed to address issues like terrorism and climate change. He said: "The outcome is anarchy and failure of the international system as we know it. The last time this happened, we had two world wars."