To distant observers, East Asian regionalism has been an on-off subject since the 1990s. For East Asian policymakers however, it has remained an intriguing scheme for more than half a century.
The concept has had numerous interpretations through the decades. Among the better-known variants of the idea have been Japan’s 1940 Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Malaysia’s 1990 East Asian Economic Grouping (EAEG), and Asean’s mid-1990s East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC).
Beyond a greater sense of cooperation approximating to integration, several of these variants differ in origins, rationale, objectives and modus operandi.
By the late 20th century however, the regionalism of sovereign, confident and increasingly prosperous nations could only mean better policy coordination and harmonisation based on mutual interest.
While in recent years trade and economic matters have led regionalist tendencies, strategic, diplomatic and other concerns remain important. As states mature, there is also growing understanding that these dimensions of interstate relations are increasingly interrelated.
Because appreciation of regionalism is uneven over time and across the region itself, regionalism often appears to be less than pressing. Its impetus has therefore seen ups and downs, usually depending on the prevailing issues of the day.
The mid-1990s was a time of relative apathy, as several countries in East Asia were content to live off the fat of the global status quo. But when the financial and economic crisis hit the region in the late-1990s, apathy turned to regret in not having earlier secured better regional coordination and cooperation.
The immediate aftermath of the crisis saw a mood of dejection in south-east Asia, particularly when viewed against north-east Asia’s better circumstances. Observers including Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew were not optimistic for the countries of Asean, at least in terms of their growth prospects.
The Financial Times reported in July 2000 that Asean was reaching for strength through weakness: that by a closer coupling with north-east Asia, in particular Japan, China and South Korea, south-east Asia hoped to bridge a rough patch. That was how the fledgling fraternity of 13 countries known as “Asean plus 3” came to be regarded.
While there may be some truth in that interpretation, there is also a danger that the historic tendencies towards Asian regionalism might be trivialised.
Buffeted by the strong regionalist tendencies of powerful and developed economies in Europe and North America, an Asia newly stricken by crisis felt vulnerable. A post-Cold War environment encouraged closer relations with neighbours without the old baggage of ideological differences.
This month has seen some milestones in improved interstate cooperation in Asia, including bilateral projects and agreements, despite some long-held mutual suspicions and rivalry.
In the first week of November, the Chinese and Pakistan navies conducted their first joint exercise. Just days later, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan visited Beijing.
The following week saw the Chinese and Indian navies conducting their first joint search-and-rescue operations. New Delhi and Beijing are set for improved trade relations in such sectors as IT and steel, with an Indian trade fair in Beijing.
Then last week, India and Pakistan decided to work together to protect a common interest: traditional medicine. Together, New Delhi and Islamabad would lead the rest of south Asia in guarding their folk medications from the bio-piracy of pharmaceutical industries from the West.
Most people in south Asia depend on traditional medicine for primary healthcare. Western drug companies, with their million-dollar budgets and teams of lawyers, are already descending on the region to copy the traditional ingredients, patent them, and sell them to locals to make a killing.
At the same time, China had been persuading North Korea to return to six-party talks and abandon its controversial nuclear development programme. Last Sunday, Pyongyang publicly announced that it would do so, if Washington would reciprocate by dropping its hostile policy to it.
That should help defuse tension on the Korean peninsula in the interests of the Koreas and the region as a whole. All parties are now moving positively towards the talks slated for the third week of December.
On Monday, Japan revealed that it would propose the formation of an East Asian community. Tokyo is set to announce the project officially in the following days, as a theme of its relations with Asean countries to be launched at next month’s Tokyo summit.
A key phrase is “comprehensive economic partnerships,” which covers free trade agreements with Japan and a bond market to help stabilise and guard regional currencies against rogue speculators. In going further to secure food and energy supplies in East Asia, as well as cooperation in fighting piracy and terrorism, Japan’s proposal appears more ambitious than even Malaysia’s EAEG.
These positive developments in Asia however are not evident in many other places. Conflict and violence continue to reign in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Even US military “allies” in Iraq like Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are sufficiently unimpressed with pacification as to review their troop deployments there. The same applies for non-government bodies like the UN and the Red Cross that once thought the war was over.
The steady deterioration in Iraq has forced Washington to agree to the “earlier” establishment of an Iraqi government before a new Constitution and election. But the decision to have such a government in place by July 2004 is still considered too late by various parties, including Russia, France and Malaysia – the latter as concurrent Chair of the Organisation of Islamic Conference and of the Non-Aligned Movement.
In the meantime, the authority of the United Nations is still being ignored by a unilateralist United States. An Italian member of the occupying forces in Iraq resigned in disgust on Monday, insisting that things are not working without full UN authority replacing L. Paul Bremer’s administration.
Following urgent talks in Washington, Bremer rejected the criticisms outright. Nonetheless, the tragic quagmire of Iraq and its environs stands in stark contrast to the more positive developments happening in Asia.
The larger problem is not only that one region is moving towards closer cooperation while another is moving away from it, but that the latter may be spilling over to contaminate the former.
In Asia, the Bush White House is seen as giving indirect encouragement to Taipei to assert its independent pretensions. Taiwan is in the grip of its most independence-inclined government ever, at a time when Washington is under the sway of its most reckless.
The separatist noises from across the Taiwan Straits are causing consternation in Beijing and elsewhere in the region, particularly with Taipei’s proposed new Constitution and likely referendum on independence. Perhaps it is just another US stunt to test China’s resolve by taunting it, but like other stunts it is risky and unproductive.
In south-east Asia, Manila’s resolve to talk peace with separatist rebels of the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) is being stretched thin with Washington’s continued prospect of joining in the jungle war. Deploying US combat troops to fight in the Philippines contravenes the Philippine Constitution and could scupper peace talks forever.
Four days ago, opposition Senator Aquilino Pimentel of Mindanao warned that continued delay in resuming talks in Kuala Lumpur increased the prospect of renewed fighting. Already government and MILF forces have exchanged allegations of violating the ceasefire.
Although this region has seen growing signs of peace and cooperation, the situation remains fragile and vulnerable to disruption. Subversive groups like Jemaah Islamiah may continue to make sporadic attacks, but they are on the run and no longer as active.
It is bad enough that other settings remain very violent, without producing negative spillage and spoilage to taint the more peaceful parts of Asia. Ultimately the choice is between peace with progress and chaos with destruction.
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