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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
April 5, 2004

East Asian Regionalism

T. J. Pempel (Director, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley)

This is an outline of Prof. Pempel's presentation at the symposium "Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and East Asia: Recent Developments and Prospects," held at the Institute of Oriental Culture, the University of Tokyo on March 29, 2004.

First, I would like to suggest that images of Asian regionalism or the Asian region are really bifurcated. There is, on the one hand, an impression that focuses on residual Cold War issues -- the Taiwan Straits, the Korean Peninsula, various islands in the South China Seas. The same image focuses on tremendous cultural, linguistic and religious differences across Asia, and points out how importantly different strains of Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism hit different parts of Asia, making it very difficult to think in terms of any kind of collective Asian values. Asia as a region is also marked by very big population differences -- China, Indonesia and Japan versus much smaller countries -- with associated huge differences in terms of levels of economic development.

So the image that grows out of this perception is that it is not surprising that cooperation in Asia and the creation of extensive regional identity are exceptionally difficult compared to many other parts of the world, particularly compared to Western Europe. The phrases that typically come up suggest that Asia is a region that is ripe for rivalry, or Asia is a site of great-power conflicts.

By contrast, however, there is a great deal of interesting writing that looks at a very different aspect of Asian regional connections and focuses much more on changes over history and increasing economic ties across Asia, as well as cross-border production, banking, transportation, communications, and the ways in which these are actually creating a situation that makes Asia not so much ripe for rivalry as ripe for cooperation.

History of Asian Fragmentation

I suggest that there are really what I call "three drivers" of Asian integration -- governments, corporations, and what you might think of as Track II networks or Track II processes. These move from two different directions. One is from the top down, and the other from the bottom up. But before I elaborate on those, I think it is valuable to remind ourselves of the tremendous history of Asian fragmentation.

If you go back far enough in history, there is a long legacy of China-centric cooperation in Asia, a legacy of trade across various oceans and sea lanes in Asia and a relative absence of conflict, so long as everyone in Asia at least nominally accepted a position of Chinese hierarchy and a system of inequality that in many ways left everyone relatively free and alone to operate in peace. But this era of cooperation was dramatically upset by western imperialism, western powers and colonialism. So from the mid-nineteenth century until World War II, Asia was very much fragmented by the Great Power conflicts in Asia.

That fragmentation in Asia continued with the Cold War, particularly in so far as alliances formed around China and the Soviet Union on the one hand and the U.S. on the other, and simultaneously as the process of decolonization left many of the new independent states in Asia focused less on cooperation across borders and more on creating a sense of nationalism, creating consolidated national identity at home, especially in the 1960s and the 1970s.

The last point that I would like to make in this regard is that to the extent that American security policies played an important role in Asian regional fragmentation, U.S. foreign policy toward Asia was quite different from U.S. policy toward Europe. In Europe the U.S. was very supportive of the early moves toward European integration, and simultaneously the U.S. put in place the NATO alliance that created the security community that was forcing all of the European countries to cooperate with each other, along with the U.S.

In contrast, the U.S. policy in Asia was predicated on what many people call the "hub and spoke" principle; that is to say, Washington was the hub and to the various capitals of Asia individual spokes went out, but there was very little that connected these Asian countries to one another. In fact, connections to one another were made through Washington D.C. So the legacy of separation in Asia continued well after the end of World War II, and was strengthened in part by U.S. security policies in ways that made Asia very different from the ways in which Europe responded to U.S. security policies.

Three Important Changes in Asia

I suggest that three important changes began to energize a greater spirit of Asian cooperation and a greater sense of Asian integration. The first of these was the tremendous economic success of Japan that started in the 1950s and accelerated well into the 1960s and 1970s. In many ways this allowed Japan to play a very important role both in terms of economic assistance to the rest of Asia and economic expansion of the rest of Asia, but it also served as an alternative model of capitalistic development, one that was quite different from that promoted by the U.S. It seems to me that many of the Asian governments took Japan as at least an implicit model for how they could put together a combination of banking, finance, trade, protection, conservative politics and labor relations. Japan in many ways served as a positive model for much of the development in Asia.

The second big change is the transformation of China, moving away from communism with the relative warming of relations between China on the one hand and the U.S. and Japan on the other. China really embraced rapid economic development, at least implicitly modeling itself on the successful economies of Korea, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere, and China basically moved away from its ideological path toward greater integration with the rest of Asia.

The third big change took place in Southeast Asia, particularly with the creation of ASEAN. I think by the late 1960s or the early 1970s, countries in Southeast Asia that were struggling with national identity recognized that collectively they were all quite weak vis--vis the large powers such as China and the U.S., and that cooperation among them, trying to speak with one voice, would allow them to play a larger role in Asian politics and economic development. The ties across Southeast Asian countries were strengthened, and eventually expanded to ten countries. Importantly, the advocates of ASEAN speak very positively about the so called "Asian ways;" respect for differences of opinion, low levels of formal rules, lots of talking together, but effort to create a kind of consensus on different issues and effort to create cooperation without formal institutions. In many ways that became a powerful force toward energizing the Asian region.

Expansion of Formal Organizations

So there are three drivers of Asian regional connections. I think it is important to recognize different levels in which these things have taken place. Many of the governments in Asia, particularly Japan, certainly China, and probably Indonesia, have been very ambivalent about how much formal organizations they wish to create and how much they are willing to surrender their sovereignty in the interest of some greater regional identity. There has always been that resistance, particularly in East Asia unlike Southeast Asia. China does not trust Japan, Japan is skeptical about China, and Korea does not really trust either China or Japan. National rivalry in Northeast Asia seems to be much stronger than has been in Southeast Asia, and continues to separate these countries.

Nevertheless we have seen the "alphabet soup" of new regional organizations, ASEAN, APEC, ASEAN plus three, ARF, and all sorts of other things including, for example, the Shanghai cooperation organization. So we have seen formal governmental organizations expand very dramatically. Comparing a number of formal regional organizations in 1990 and in 2002, you will see that numerous new organizations and linkages have been formed that are essentially government driven. So we are seeing some substantial moves forward in terms of formal institutions and formal cooperation.

Perhaps even more impressive are somewhat informal arrangements among governments, technology sharing agreements, policies that tend to achieve cooperation between governments on international crime, piracy, migration, environmental degradation, etc. Now there are increasing cooperation and movements to fight terror and cooperate on anti-terror activities in Asia. These are important government steps, and governments really drive things.

Private Activities and Asian Pop Culture

But I would argue that we have much more activity by private corporations and financial institutions, including banks. And much of this grows out of the Plaza Accord in 1985 and the massive rise in the Japanese yen, the Taiwan new dollar and the Korean won. And corporations in all three of those countries, by virtue of their rising currencies, were moved to invest very heavily abroad, especially in China and in Southeast Asia, and increasingly Singaporean money and, to some extent, Malaysian money moving in terms of developing production networks. All of this has moved forward the economic linkages among various countries.

Much more fun and much more enjoyable is the ways in which many corporations have begun to drive the notion of a common Asian pop culture; Japanese companies exporting Karaoke and J-pop, Korean companies exporting K-pop, manga has become a global phenomenon, Korean soap operas are now very popular, Japanese movies and pop arts move abroad, etc. And to the extent that you get a growing middle class culture among many of the cities in Asia, cultural experiences of more and more citizens in Seoul, Taipei, Singapore, HK or Osaka are increasingly common.

The third driver in addition to governments and corporations are what you might think of as problem-oriented bodies; groups that come together to focus on a particular problem such as the environment in terms of something like a Track II diplomacy organization that brings together government officials and private individuals to discuss possible approaches to different kinds of problems such as piracy in Asia, Northeast Asian security, or issues of anti-terror policy. So there is a great deal more cooperation going on at this level as well.

Regionalism vs. Regionalization

It is useful to suggest that this cooperation takes place in two very different directions. One direction, which I term "regionalism," focuses on top down, governmental action, formal agreements and the creation of formal institutions -- what political scientists are increasingly familiar with. But it is also useful to recognize not just the top down process but the bottom up process, which I refer to as "regionalization," which is essentially driven not by government but by society, largely by corporations, or by private groups, sometimes driven by NGOs.

In essence these linkages are bottom up, and they do not usually involve governments or challenges to national sovereignty. They are relatively less formal, but increasingly they provide common experiences in Asia, and so relentless conversations are going across Asia with more and more individuals, corporations and governments finding it necessary to cooperate in ways very different from the EU. In many ways the EU is the real odd case of regional ties, and Asia may be much closer to what is going on in Latin America and the Middle East.

Fluid Outside Boundaries

The last point that I would like to take up is what I call "flexibility in the outer limits." There has been a lot of debate or a lot of discussion about the creation of regional blocks. Certainly in Western Europe, the creation of the EU has a certain sense of protection. What we have seen, however, is really greater openness on the part of the Asian region to various concentric circles. It is very hard to decide exactly what "East Asia" means. The Asian region or the East Asian region at times is East Asia, which means something like EAEC, or ASEAN plus three, but in other cases there are formal organizations that Asian countries have linked up to such as APEC or the Shanghai cooperation organization.

When you begin to think about different issues, particularly security, it is impossible to think about Asian security without thinking about the U.S. being a major player or probably without thinking about Russia as an important player. And perhaps the Middle East gets woven into many of the networks of Southeast Asian terrorist groups. The same thing can be said about environmental and other issues.

My last point is that the area that we tend to think of as East Asia really has very fluid outside boundaries. Different countries are included or excluded, and linkages tend to get thinner as you move away from the core of East Asia, but in many respects this provides very healthy creation of regionalism because it allows governments and individuals in Asia to in effect have one foot in the Asian camp and one foot in the global camp, and it is possible for Asia to look inward for solutions to certain problems such as finance, but look outside to the U.S., Canada, and Europe for things like trade or security. In the long run, this fluidity is, perhaps, a very positive way for intra-Asian units to link to each other with a certain amount of flexibility and a little less formal structure, and also provides the opportunity to shift boundaries as the problems that are being faced change.

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