IT was Tokyo in the early 1990s, soon after the retirement as prime minister of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. As guest speaker at the lectern, Lee was telling the mainly Japanese audience how a world built around two economic poles was preferable to one built around three.
It had also been soon after Malaysia had proposed the East Asia Economic Grouping (EAEG), finding pained reluctance from prospective key member Japan. Tokyo was as intrigued by the proposal as it was cold towards it, sensing little apparent enthusiasm from Jakarta and Singapore as well.
Since then, much regional water has passed under the Asean bridge. The EAEG became a caucus (EAEC), and then Asean+3, as Lee moved from Senior Minister to Minister Mentor and both President Suharto and Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir retired.
Nine days ago in Seoul, Lee at last seemed to acknowledge East Asian regional integration. But this came with a caveat: Get along with others in East Asia, but don’t neglect the rest of the world.
Academics and biographers may debate over whether this was really a change of tack. The fact is that in more than a decade, East Asian regionalism had changed – if only by becoming more of what it had already been.
In the 1990s, it was Goh Chok Tong’s Singapore that suggested making a then-intractable EAEG the EAEC, “as a caucus within Apec”. Mahathir, miffed at the prospect of his idea being diminished, said it might be a caucus in Apec, but not of Apec.
This essentially meant the EAEC members might be geographically within the Apec zone, but as a grouping in its own right it need not be constrained or defined by Apec. Nonetheless, the EAEC came to be regarded as a nuanced shift in emphasis to something more circumscribed and less independent.
But with the semantics and symbolism out of the way, the EAEC became an Asean project and an adjunct to a grouping of some 20 countries in Apec, which excluded Europe. Still, several ingredients seemed to be missing to make it tick.
EAEC partisans in Asean worked with their Japanese counterparts unofficially to reconstruct the prospective regional edifice in launching Asean+3. This contained the same 10 members of both the EAEC and the EAEG: China, Japan and South Korea plus the 10 members of Asean.
Through the years, Asean endorsement for the project grew, as it became more clearly distinguished as an Asean proposal. Japanese interest and involvement peaked until Tokyo fully endorsed it, long after China and South Korea had given their support.
Singapore’s position, however, has been consistent albeit atypical of the rest of the region. Varying from measured distance to qualified endorsement, it is characteristic of a small country with no natural resources dependent on trade with the world’s major power centres.
From its origins as a hub of entrepot trade to its current thrust as an international financial centre, Singapore has had the least reason to feel a sense of rootedness as in regionalism. However, once regionalism looms as obviously as it now does thanks largely to China, small countries are usually best at adapting to the realities.
The region has so changed since the 1990s as to make Washington re-examine East Asian regionalism, after trying to decipher it. After George Bush Sr’s opposition, the two Clinton terms seemed more relaxed until it almost became a non-issue with the current Bush White House.
But now a sense of doubt appears to be returning. Washington is now saying the proposed East Asian Community should complement rather than conflict with existing regional frameworks such as Apec, which it dominates.
The sentiment is as redundant as the anxiety is incongruent. The East Asia of the 21st century is an economically driven region that requires – demands – steady partners and healthy friendships, not mutually destructive competition.
The Cold War’s zero-sum game does not apply here, even if some want it to or otherwise cannot be rid of it. A marketised region has to pull as one in the same direction, and that in turn needs to describe the same trajectory as the rest of a connected world.
The week has seen various people expressing misgivings in North-East Asia over how North-East Asian countries cannot seem to get along. Friction between Tokyo and its immediate neighbours Beijing and Seoul could have been exaggerated, but still there is no end to the feuding in sight.
This testifies to the urgent need for a unified East Asia, with few ways to be better unified than being integrated. And the case for this is never stronger than when the need is greatest. Emphasising economics helps make it a more inclusive and rewarding experience.
The world’s geopolitical furniture should be more stable on five legs. But while awaiting perhaps South Asia’s and Latin America’s ascent, a tripolar world at least should offer greater stability than a mere bipolar one.
Each of the three constituents of tripolarity must constantly be on its best behaviour, or else the other two would combine against it. That may well be the most effective deterrent against excess or mischief.
Tripods have been established as fairly stable arrangements. However, bipolarity has already proven its inherently unstable nature through decades of the Cold War.
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