An East Asian Community? Not So Fast

An East Asian Community? Not So Fast

The politically fractious but economically powerful East Asian region made progress towards cooperation at a summit in January.
The second East Asia Summit (EAS) in January 2007 offered promise towards regional integration. Photo Credit: StockXchng.com
The meeting of 16 national leaders at the second East Asia Summit (EAS) on the Philippine island of Cebu in January 2007 offered the promise of the politically fractious but economically powerful Asian mega-region one day coalescing into a single meaningful unit.

Many Western commentators dismissed the inaugural confab held in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 as a pointless talk fest that failed to produce even a mission statement. But the amount of chatter in Asian academic and policymaking circles after the second summit had ended suggests that East Asian community building is a concept whose time may have come.

The momentum has been helped by improving relations between Japan and its neighbors, as well as continuing efforts to create regional free-trade agreements (FTAs) and liberalize markets.
Momentum towards an East Asian community has been helped by improving relations between Japan and its neighbors, as well as continuing efforts to create regional free-trade agreements (FTAs) and liberalize markets.


The momentum has been helped by improving relations between Japan and its neighbors, as well as continuing efforts to create regional free-trade agreements (FTAs) and liberalize markets.

"A desire to increase market access and promote domestic policy reform has helped spur a rush of FTAs which have freed up the movement of goods, funds, people and information," said Shujiro Urata, a professor of economics at Waseda University in Tokyo.

The number of FTAs has skyrocketed over the past three years. At last count, there were 18 major trade agreements in place in East Asia, and at least another 32 under negotiation. The possibility of one day a massive multilateral trade pact covering the entire East Asia superseding bilateral agreements was discussed at the summit, resulting in a plan that China had previously blocked that includes Australia, New Zealand and India. To be sure, debate on the concept of an East Asian community is not new. After a surge of interest in the mid-1990s, the topic lost its cachet in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis. Meetings between intellectuals and government policy planners around the Asia-Pacific in so-called "Track II" unofficial dialogues dropped to just 20 by 1999, but were estimated to have surged past 200 last year.

Official government-level meetings among Asian countries have increased by a similar margin. "This reflects the fact that these meetings have taken up non-traditional security issues [such as terrorism and transnational crime], which have been increasing with greater regional interdependence," said Akiko Fukushima, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Research Advancement in Tokyo.

Analysts say Sino-Japanese rivalry is a compelling factor behind the revival of the East Asian community concept. Japan is concerned that the ASEAN+3 (the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea) process will become dominated by China and wants to bring other major players into the process. ASEAN countries are also hedging against possible Chinese dominance to varying degrees.
The number of free trade agreements in the region has increased dramatically - at last count, there were 18 major trade agreements in place, and at least another 32 under negotiation.


"Thailand and Malaysia see engagement with Beijing on a bilateral basis and through regional processes as sufficient to balance China. But countries like Vietnam and Indonesia seem to nurse greater apprehensions, and seek to hedge against Chinese dominance by opting for a stronger EAS," said Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, chairman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.

Although rivalries have emerged more clearly in the region, underlying cultural and social links are quietly flourishing. The number of tourists from ASEAN countries visiting other ASEAN countries has doubled since 1991 and now makes up almost half of all visitor arrivals. More exchange students are choosing to study within East Asia, and indirect cultural exposure though media such as television dramas, movies, and manga comic books is booming.

Yet even in this most non-political arena, national rivalries can block integration: Japanese anime cartoons had become so popular among Chinese children that Beijing in September banned them from being broadcast during prime-time viewing hours. Such sensitivity is also reflected in the lack of consensus on what the cultural basis of an East Asian community should be. Questions over regional identity underscore the vast social disparities that exist within the region.

A huge range of political systems, religious beliefs, gender values, social mores and patterns of economic activity exist across Asia. Although Australia, New Zealand and India have so far been included in EAS discussions, the issue of membership on cultural grounds is far from settled. Japan backs a wider cultural community partly because it seeks to include countries that respect human rights and share democratic beliefs. But South Korea and China favor a more purist Asian identity for community-building.

"Australia and New Zealand are culturally part of the West, so it's hard for them to take part in the identity-formation process," said Andrew Kim, a professor of Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul.
The number of tourists from ASEAN countries visiting other ASEAN countries has doubled since 1991 and now makes up almost half of all visitor arrivals.


The desire to keep the community-building process a primarily Asian initiative is perhaps understandable in a region that was under Western colonial control until 60 years ago. Yet it also harks back to the concept of "Asian values" proposed by former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad - an idea based on the misconception that Asian countries share basic belief systems.

The results of the Asian Barometer, a massive comparative survey of values across Asia involving research teams from 17 nations, show that the region is so socially diverse there are no basic attitudes common to all countries.

"The idea of Asian values has no strong empirical basis," said Takashi Inoguchi, a professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo and leader of the Japan team for the Asian Barometer project.

Most Asian countries contain a range of cultures and languages within their borders. China, for example, contains some ethnic minorities more closely related to Turks than to Han Chinese. Most Indonesians speak Bahasa Indonesia only as a second language after local tongues. Different value systems also exist between generations, particularly after rapid modernization.

People in Asia prefer to identify with their cultural sub-group rather than be called Asian, said Lee Mei-hsien, an expert on comparative politics at National Chi Nan University in Taiwan. "We are in an era that requires multiple identity - we can't give that up for an Asia-wide identity that doesn't exist," she said.




Contributed by Bennett Richardson, a Tokyo-based freelance journalist. Reprinted with permission from AsiaTimes Online.

To read another Global Envision article about trade in Asia, see The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and China's Reach.



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