[Overseas view]Korea’s role in Asia’s new regionalism

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[Overseas view]Korea’s role in Asia’s new regionalism

Many Korean scholars and policy makers are focused on the new institutionalization of the six-party talks, with a lot of intense debate and good research about how to develop a permanent peace mechanism on the peninsula and how to turn the six-party talks framework into a lasting forum for building confidence and cooperation in Northeast Asia.
Indeed, based on the September 2005 agreement, representatives of the six parties have already met in working groups to consider these issues. But while much of the focus in Korea is on this concrete work on the peninsula, the rest of Asia is more focused on discussions of how to build a broader “East Asian community.” This broader debate will be no less important for Korea or for the U.S.-Korea alliance, and it merits careful watching.
At first glance, it appears that Asia is heading smoothly toward the development of an “East Asian community.” There are frequent summits and conference papers emphasizing this theme of pan-Asian solidarity. But one does not have to look too far below the surface to realize that the process of building multilateral cooperation also engenders intense competition and disagreement in four areas.
First, there is the debate about what agenda and what norms will guide Asian integration. Will it be based on the original concept of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), now championed by China, that Asians value “non-interference in the internal affairs of other states?” Or will the integration be guided by the example of Nafta or the EU, where the goal is to forge common values of democracy, rule of law and human rights in the region? Japan is increasingly arguing for this latter “values-based” idea of integration and Asean itself has issued a new draft charter calling for the embrace of universal (and not “Asian”) values of human rights and democracy.
Second, there is the question of who is in Asia. India is in the new East Asia Summit, but the United States is not (yet). The U.S. has a lead role in APEC, but India is not in the forum. China increasingly prefers to focus on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Asean Plus Three (Japan-China-Korea) meetings, since the United States is not there.
Should there be an open, inclusive and trans-Pacific arrangement, or one that centers on East Asia without including the United States?
Third is the question of what kind of economic integration is appropriate in Asia. Will integration be based on the Asean+1 Free Trade Agreement model with China or the Asean+3 proposals, which have very low targets for reducing tariffs and other trade barriers?
Or will liberalization be based on high-quality FTAs that are consistent with the Doha Round of global trade liberalization, like the U.S.-Australia or U.S.-Korea FTA?
Finally, there is the question of who provides public goods in Asia. Will the East Asia Summit or APEC or Asean Plus Three ever be able to underpin security in the region as effectively as the network of bilateral U.S. alliances that kept the peace for half a century in Asia?
Or can the U.S. bilateral alliances do the job without the extra layers of multilateral cooperation provided by APEC and other regional groups? Or is it better to have coalitions of the willing in a crisis that can move quickly without waiting for more cautious states, which was how the six-party process or the tsunami relief effort originally began?
Working out these four areas will take time, but the answers will be as crucial to the people of Korea as the specific arrangements on the peninsula. If Seoul takes the attitude of a “balancer” between these various concepts of Asian regionalism, there is a danger that Korea will be left behind. For example, there are active proposals from Tokyo, Beijing and Washington for a trilateral U.S.-Japan-China summit in the future.
Neither Japan nor China are looking to Korea to be a “balancer” in their relationship and instead are focusing on the triangular relationship with Washington. Similarly, Shinzo Abe’s proposal for a U.S.-Australia-India-Japan quadrilateral meeting (which was organized at the deputy minister level in early June) excludes Korea, perhaps in part because of concerns that Seoul’s “balancer” concept means Korea would not be fully invested in the principle of working with like-minded democracies.
Instead of being a “balancer” in this process of regionalization, Korea should be the “hub.” South Korea is perfectly positioned to be at the center of the full range of emerging multilateral institutions. And that also means that Korea can be a bridge among them.
For example, the U.S.-Australia-India-Japan quadrilateral idea (which is modeled on the regional tsunami core group), would be much stronger if it included Korea and perhaps Indonesia as two democracies that also bridge continental Asia and open the process for eventual Chinese participation (the democracies should start the process to establish a higher set of principles about issues such as humanitarian relief or development assistance, where Beijing is not yet very transparent). Similarly, Korea should be at the center of building a region-wide consensus on trade liberalization, since the U.S.-Korea FTA could be the bridge between Asean Plus Three discussions and trans-Pacific trade liberalization.
In other words, rather than reacting to the dynamics of power rivalry between Japan and China in this process of regionalization and somehow trying to be a “balancer” (which is a very reactive concept to begin with), Korea can take the lead in forging a new definition of regional integration that is open and inclusive.
This means not splitting the difference between China and Japan or the U.S., but building on Korea’s strong values as a democracy and a global economic player to set a high standard that pulls all the countries in the region towards meaningful integration. And this obviously also means close partnership with the United States, which shares those values but is not always involved in all of the aspects of Asian regional integration.

*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.

by Michael Green
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