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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
December 19, 2002

Integrating: Economically and Culturally

Ronald Dore (Professor, University of London)


The most controversial issue at the recent EU summit meeting in Copenhagen was not the accession of the 10 new members from Central and Eastern Europe, but the decision to begin negotiating the accession of Turkey -- albeit, much to the Turks' chagrin, only in four years' time.
It was controversial because the arguments were complex. Two great advantages that everyone acknowledged were that it would accelerate a settlement of the conflict with Greece over Cyprus, and that it would strengthen the democratic forces in a country where torture and other abuses of human rights are still tolerated, where the military frequently interferes in politics and where the Kurdish minority lacks full rights.

But there were several problems. Two were specific to the Turkish situation.. The majority of Turks live in Asia, not in Europe. Once you lose the clarity of geographical definition where do you end? Secondly, Turkey's per capita income is roughly a tenth of Germany's. Can the EU accommodate such wide differences.

That last consideration raises general issues of some interest also to anyone thinking about East Asian. The income gap between Japan and Laos or Myanmar is if anything greater than that between Germany and Turkey. Equally of interest to East Asians were two other considerations in the European negotiations. The first was American influence. From the beginning of the Cold War, Turkey has been a part of NATO. Its bases were a crucial bargaining card in, for example, the Cuba crisis of 1962. The US wanted, not only to reward Turkey for its loyalty, but also to assure Turkey's co-operation for a war on Iraq about which Turkey was hesitant because of the possible effects on its Kurdish minority. Hence America (together with Britain as America's most loyal spokesman) exerted strong pressure on all the 15 EU nations to give Turkey the prize which it so coveted. It is hard to say which of the reactions to this pressure -- compliance (in the case of Italy, for instance) or counter-productively of resistance (as in the case of France) -- was the greater. The point that East Asians must take aboard is that the United States government does not take a "leave-them-to-their-own-business" attitude to the rest of the world's creation of regional groupings. It want to shape them, and in East Asia, where it has two major military allies in Japan and South Korea, and one major "strategic competitor" in China, it will have a strong interest in applying pressure to achieve the results it desires.

The other question was the culture question. This was raised in the most prominent way by the former French President, Giscard d'Estaing who is currently chairman of a commission charged with creating a Constitution for the new Europe. Turkey, he pointed out, is a Muslim country. If Europe is to be anything more than an economic concept, if it is to have some common shared culture which can provide a focus of pride and loyalty to its inhabitants, it must be on the basis of some common cultural heritage. And the European heritage -- of Greece and Rome and Christian civilisation. is one which Turkey does not share.

With a totally different historical background, and nothing comparable to what prompted the first moves towards a united Europe --- the historic France-Germany conflict --- East Asia is, nevertheless a region where talk of creating at least a free trade area has been going on for a long time. What prompts reflection on the relevance to Asia of the income-gap question, the cultural homogeneity question and the American pressure question in the European negotiations is the recent November meeting in Phnom Penh of ASEA-plus-Three. The striking aspect of that meeting was the contrast between the engagement of two of the three, China and Japan.

Everyone present endorsed the principle of Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Japan and the Asean countries made a Joint Declaration which reaffirmed that principle. The declaration also contains some astonishingly precise forecasts, such that ASEAN exports to Japan in the year 2020 would be 44.2% (note: not 44.1% nor 44.3%) higher than in 1997. As for how to get to that point, however, there is less precision. The declaration merely asserted a common intention to "develop a framework that would provide a basis for concrete plans and elements towards realising an ASEAN-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership". A framework for the basis for a plan for a partnership and not to realise the partnership but to move towards realising it!

Meanwhile, China and ASEAN were signing a Framework on Economic Cooperation which was a very different document, far more detailed, with a timetable for the completion of negotiations to establish an ASEAN-China Free Trade Area including the more advanced ASEAN countries by 2010, and to include Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar by 2015. It also announced a programme for the liberalisation of trade in agricultural goods the so-called Early Harvest Programme to start almost immediately. One consistent feature was China's "benevolent elder brother" posture. It promised to cut its tariffs ahead of the other countries, and the agreement frequently refers to special measures to favour the weaker states again, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The contrast between the two declarations is a striking sign of the times. Ten years ago everyone would naturally have assumed that if any country was going to take the initiative in establishing a system of economic co-operation in Asia it would be the overwhelmingly dominant economic power, Japan. After 10 years of astonishing Chinese growth and Japanese stagnation, that is no longer by any means the case. There is a clear possibility that China's faster start will give her a growing advantage, and that the region of the Chinese diaspora will indeed become a well-integrated trading bloc in which neither Japan nor Korea will play any part. Perhaps it is significant of an already visible intention to address the knotty question of the interplay between cultural homogeneity and economic interest that the first concrete steps which will promote far more Chinese imports of South East Asian goods than vice versa are in agricultural products. Is this perhaps a move on the part of Confucian China and the Chinese-dominated industrial and commercial sectors in South-East Asia to show their concern for the predominantly Muslim,. Buddhist and Christian rural areas of a future Free Trade Area?

It is not obvious that Japan should be concerned at such a development if it happens: It is a long time since the danger of becoming Ajia no koji an orphan in Asia has had much resonance in Japanese politics. On the other hand, economic integration could well lead to closer political integration, and a South-East Asia dominated by China will serve to reinforce Japan's dependence on, its satellite status vis-a-vis, the United States. If Japan wishes to keep open the option of becoming a part of what emerges from closer economic integration in East Asia, one thing would seem to be clear from the "Chinese elder brother" aspects of the current agreement. Integration is taking place not on the basis of total reciprocity, but on the assumption of differential strengths and of an obligation on the stronger powers to give differential advantages to the weaker ones. Elder brothers need to co-ordinate these concessions. (The metaphor comes naturally. I recall Ruth Benedict in her wartime book on Japanese culture, writing of the Confucian emphasis on natural hierarchies and illustrating it with Japan's claim to be "oldest brother" in an East Asian Co-prosperity sphere.) In other words, the Japan-ASEAN negotiations over the "framework for the basis for the plan" need to be supplemented with serious negotiations with Beijing to co-ordinate the efforts to bring the "trade, rather than aid" principle to the development of the poorest countries of South-East Asia.

A final word on the "Turkey question" about the cultural cement which might bind a future Asian Free Trade Area. Japan and China's shared Confucian and Buddhist (and even Taoist) traditions clearly give them far more in common than Japan has with, say, the Philippines. But how much does that really count for today? There are probably, now, more Japanese who have read Faulkner or Mark Twain in translation than have read the Tang poets, or any twentieth century Chinese novelist. And that relates also to what was said earlier about American wishes and pressures -- not so far a very obvious factor in the Asian negotiations discussed above, but probably destined to be so once the United States has sorted out the Middle East to its satisfaction. It is not irrelevant to note that most of the negotiations in the European Union over Turkey's accession were conducted in English. The Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Co-operation between ASEAN and China was also written, and published on the Internet, in the same language the native language of the hegemon.

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