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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
March 3, 2003

Governance Across Borders in Northeast Asia: Shaping and Sharing Identities, Ideas, Interests and Institutions (Abridged Version)

Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, University of Tokyo)

(Abridged Version of the Paper Presented at the conference, "Governance Across Borders: National, Regional, and Global," organized by the Delegation of the European Commission in Japan and the United Nations University in Tokyo, January 24-25, 2002)

[Professor Inoguchi's Full Paper is available in the PDF form (60.3kb)]

This paper attempts to examine the extent to which community formation in Northeast Asia (i.e., Japan, China, Taiwan, Koreas, Russia, Mongolia) is feasible. In order to constitute a modicum of governance across borders, one needs to inculcate a certain set of commonalities. This paper empirically examines the state of affairs in the region in terms of identities, ideas, interests and institutions. On the basis of empirical examination, discussion is be made on how one might proceed to the task of shaping and sharing identities, ideas, interests and institutions in Northeast Asia so that some sort of regional governance norms and structures can be envisaged in the future.

1. Identity

Identity is defined as something which psychologically binds members of a community often on the basis of historical, geographical and cultural factors. Most Northeast Asians find their identity largely on the basis of national community. Southeast Asians are more or less the same in this regard. Compared to Europeans, Asians, Northeast or Southeast, have not developed their regional identity very much. In the 18 society survey done in 2000 (Nippon Research Center 2001), this has become amply clear.

Amongst Europeans Britons are a clear outlier in the European identity registering only 24.8%. Amongst Asians, South Koreans, Thais and Phillipinos are positive outliers in this regard, registering respectively 88.6%, 81.9% and 75.1%. One difficulty arises on this regional identity since two categories, Chinese and Islamic, are chosen heavily in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Nevertheless focusing on Northeast Asians in this survey, i.e, Japanese, South Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese, one can conclude that only South Koreans entertain strong Asian identity. More than two thirds of Japanese choose the last category, refusing to think of themselves in any supranational fashion. Chinese and especially Taiwanese think of themselves as part of the greater cultural Chinese commonwealth, thus Asian regional identity has not developed very much. Therefore one can conclude from this finding that shaping Asian identity may take more time than some of the proponents of Asian regional identity formation tend to think.

2. Idea

Of all ideas, freedom is most important for me to examine. Following Freedom House ratings of countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties, one can see that Northeast Asians would have tremendous difficulties in overcoming the enormous diversity in the degree of freedom. Japan's ratings are 1 (highest group in the world) in terms of political rights and 2 in terms of civil liberties. South Korea's ratings are 2 in terms of political rights and 2 in terms of civil liberties. Taiwan's ratings are 2 in terms of political rights and 2 in terms of civil liberties. China's ratings are 7 in terms of political rights and 6 in terms of civil liberties. North Korea's ratings are 7 in terms of political rights and 7 in terms of civil liberties.

One can argue that the current diversity is not a major problem as community formation takes ages anyway and that meanwhile one can expect regime change might take place in China and North Korea. Those who argue for the likelihood of regime change in such societies depict a number of causal factors. Two most classical and widely shared views on this are (1) that the increasing affluence in China will lead eventually to the societal demand to go free and (2) that the diffusion and penetration of ideas from without through the internet and email are destined to cause the increase in dissidents on the one hand and to cause adjustments by the communist leadership on the other. While China seems to give a number of symptoms of the decay of communist rule, North Korea seems to defy any prediction on these two causal factors eventually leading to the abandonment of communist dictatorship. After all the North Korean leadership has been keeping people in dire poverty, if not intentionally, thus causing the increasing number of people to leave the country, albeit on a very small scale compared to Central/East Europeans prior to 1989, a symptom of regime collapse if the scale gets enormously large. Also the North Korean leadership forbids people from having access to radio and television and computer. Yet some ethnic Korean tourists and visitors from outside, i.e., South Korea, Japan and China, bring in "subversive information" to North Koreans.

Other than these two causal factors, one sometimes argues that American unipolar unilateral coersive diplomacy might be executed once some large scale domestic disturbances are expected to bring about the momentum of regional destabilization. In China and North Korea during and immediately after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, such fear was seemingly felt. When the United States is shifting from its two-war strategy to one-war strategy under the new Bush Administration, the United States might be tempted to smash a core trouble spot with a fast, massive and decisive action, if it can believe that such action could trigger regime change.

3. Interest

Under the heading of interest I examine the importance attached to the interdependent links of external trade and energy supply. Among China, Russia, Mongolia. South Korea, North Korea, and Japan, the external trade among China, South Korea and Japan overwhelms the rest of external trade in the region, registering 89.5%. The amount of external trade within the region was merely 154 billion US dollars as of 1996 when the total world trade amount was 5,391 billion US dollars. In terms of the ratio of intra-regional trade over total trade, China and South Korea are a high achiever. China registers 19.8% for export, 33,8% for import, South Korea records 25% for export, 27.9% for import. Japan registers 13.8% for edxport and 17.4% for import. Japan's interest in trade links with Northeast Asia is much smaller than China or South Korea.

Since China and Russia are geographically spread out, one needs to take a look at more geographically confined statistics. China's Northeast (Liaoning, Jiling, Heilongjiang) registers 53.8% for export and 47.6% for import while Russia's Far East registers 62.0% for export and 33.8% for import, all in terms of the ratio of intra-regional trade over total trade. Mongolia, a landlocked country, registers high figures on this, 72.5% for export and 85.4% for import.

To sum up, one can argue that intra-regional trade links have been on the steady rise, yet that the total amount is still pitifully small compared to the ever rising world trade if the aim is to enhance a regional economic community.

4. Institution

There are two kinds of institution: one is concerned with high politics, the other with low politics. The crux of the matter in Northeast Asia is that even the minimum level of the former type of institutions has been yet to be settled/resolved. First, the seemingly-difficult-to-reconcile tension between North and South Korea, Second, the seemingly-difficult-to-reconcile tension between Beijing and Taibei. Third, the seemingly-difficult-to-reconcile impasse between Japan and Russia, Fourth, the often-difficult-to-understand Japanese sense of history. These are all very heavy questions and one cannot envision Northeast Asian regional community unless these start to erode as a major barrier.

Nevertheless, institutions have been on the increase in Northeast Asia as well. It is a remarkable development that Japan, South Korea and China regularly meet and discuss matters not only bilaterally but also within a multilateral institutional format like ASEAN PLUS THREE (meaning Japan, South Korea and China). But this institution excludes many important parties to community formation: Taiwan, North Korea, the United States, and Australia. One can argue that including the United States in community formation precludes a healthy development of Northeast Asian regional community. But excluding the United States in community building efforts tends to make the process slow and feeble.

5. Conclusion

I have examined the possibility of community building in Northeast Asia in terms of identity, idea, interest and institution. From the above examination, it seems that community building in Northeast Asia has come to acquire big potentials. It will be a long road, however.

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