[Ovearseas view]An Asian regional community?Participation in a recent conference in Hong Kong on the prospects for Asian community turned up a striking juxtaposition: The Asians present conducted a very nuanced and sophisticated discussion of the dynamics of regional community building; the Americans who were there ― including Ambassador Stapleton Roy and myself ― were impelled to acknowledge the extraordinary difficulty one would have replicating their level of thoughtful reflection on the subject in Washington, given its preoccupation with other problems and other regions.
The Asian participants recognized that a regional community is an aspirational goal ― a work in progress whose final shape is not yet discernible. They were familiar with regional ventures in other geographic areas ― such as the European Union ― yet did not regard them as models to be emulated.
Asians, they seemed to agree, confront a different set of challenges, possess a different set of attributes and prefer a distinctive set of interactions. They aim for more informal networks rather than highly structured institutions. All were mindful of the constraints that must be overcome ― above all, the lingering distrust and nascent rivalry between Asia’s most powerful states, Japan and China. All understood that progress would be incremental, given the heterogeneity of the region, the diversity of cultures, and the differing stages of economic and political development. Yet, none seemed daunted by these obstacles.
Their sense of confidence about the trajectory and pace of community building was buoyed by the evident headway achieved in recent years. Asean Plus Three (APT) has acquired visible momentum by focusing on practical projects to facilitate intra-regional trade and monetary cooperation. The East Asian Summit is off the ground with expanded geographic scope (through membership extended to India, Australia and New Zealand). A division of labor seems to be emerging between the two, with the former shaping up as a functional organization, the latter as a broader forum for “palaver” and dialogue. Asean has taken a consistent lead in promoting institution-building and in fostering preventive diplomacy with Beijing on delicate issues like rival territorial claims in the South China Sea. Chinese diplomacy has in turn displayed subtlety in playing down its own leadership and demonstrating sensitivity to the interests of others. Meanwhile, competition between China and Japan may conceivably hasten institution-building as Beijing pushes trade liberalization schemes ― a comparative advantage, given its huge and rapidly growing internal market ― while Japan encourages monetary cooperation, its strong suit, through promotion of a regional bond market.
Some of the emerging regional ventures reflect potentially competing geopolitical agenda. The APT, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, could be viewed as an incipient Asian “hedge” against American hegemony in East Asia or Central Asia.
The East Asian Summit, on the other hand, with its inclusion of democratic countries from South Asia and Oceania, could represent an incipient effort to arrange a check on future Chinese pre-eminence.
While both forums promote the concept of “open regionalism,” U.S. membership in the APT does not appear to be an option, while Washington has itself chosen to forswear participation in the EAS, whose membership criteria could be readily fulfilled if the United States were prepared to sign an Amity and Cooperation Agreement with Asean. (No compelling explanation has been offered for its refusal to do so).
Thoughtful Asians seem eager to keep the United States engaged in the region, recognizing that our huge open market and our contribution to regional security remain valuable assets.
They seek to avoid any impression that nascent regional ventures are being designed to pursue objectives inimical to American interests. They encouraged Washington to revitalize the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), suggesting that they regard an active trans-Pacific partnership as a natural complement to emerging pan-Asian activities and institutions.
Both Asians and Americans should devote more serious attention and priority to a major lacuna in Asian regional arrangements: the absence of any sub-regional security institution in Northeast Asia devoted to ameliorating the residual risks of conflict inherent in a divided Korea, rival territorial claims to undersea resources, and the unresolved Taiwan issue. The six-party talks may constitute in embryonic form a Northeast Asian counterpart to Asean. But it is unlikely to fulfill that promise unless it achieves success in the task for which it was ostensibly established ― the denuclearization of North Korea.
The disappointments that have thus far attended efforts to implement the Feb. 13 agreement remind one of just how elusive that task remains.
*The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.
by Michael H. Armacost
More in Columns
Room for alignment
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin