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Can we all just get along?

Two books examine the prospects for East Asian integration

by Anthony Fensom

THE POLITICS OF ECONOMIC REGIONALISM, by Kevin G. Cai. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 196 pp., $80 (hardcover)

CHINA, JAPAN AND REGIONAL LEADERSHIP IN EAST ASIA, by Christopher M. Dent. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2010, 311 pp., $50 (paper)

Will East Asia ever get its own tightknit regional grouping worthy of the name? As Japan and China approach next year’s 40th anniversary of normalized diplomatic ties, debate continues over whether the two Asian powerhouses can bury their differences for the greater good.

The leadership question is particularly important in an area home to 1.5 billion people, given its political tinderboxes ranging from the Korean Peninsula to the South China Sea and Taiwan. While seirei keinetsu (cold politics, hot economics) may characterize Japan-China relations, any escalation of tensions would impact well beyond the borders of the world’s fastest-growing region.

Two academic works that shed light on these issues are Kevin Cai’s “The Politics of Economic Regionalism,” which focuses on regional integration, while Christopher Dent’s “China, Japan and Regional Leadership” presents a broad range of views on current and future ties.

Foreign policy may have taken a back seat in the wake of Japan’s devastating natural disasters, but the underlying issues remain and both books provide useful pointers to the future of regional ties.

Together, they present a picture of China increasingly flexing its muscle under its policy of so-called “peaceful rise,” initiated by Deng Xiaoping. In contrast, democratic Japan’s influence is depicted correspondingly declining as the region’s orbit moves toward its communist-ruled neighbor.

According to Dent, professor at the University of Leeds, China’s regional leadership is “already a reality because regional elites have imbued China with power and have responded accordingly to their own constructed image of a Sino-centric regional future.”

The book cites Deng’s policy of “desisting from claiming leadership” as China attempts to emerge as a “Great Power” without attracting negative attention. Beijing, it is argued, is attempting to overcome the previous “century of humiliation,” with its final vestige represented by Taiwan.

This benign vision of “Pax Sinica” is contradicted by last year’s row between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands. This appeared to show a more aggressive approach from Beijing, and the author suggests that a future Chinese government may take an even harder line in asserting its aspirations.

Japan’s so-called policy of seikei bunri (separation of politics and economics) has become increasingly strained by such disputes, which not only soured public opinion but cost economically with the postponement of talks over gas field development in the East China Sea.

Chinese analysts have criticized Tokyo’s defense and security policies, with Japan’s move to shift its priority defense areas southwest toward Taiwan hitting a nerve in Beijing. Worries over Japan’s potential use of the “Taiwan card” to constrain China are highlighted in Dent’s work.

Contributing writer Rex Li asserts that most Chinese analysts consider Japan “a major challenge to Asia Pacific security and to the security of China,” adding that Beijing would be unlikely to entrust Tokyo with regional leadership.

Yet despite mutual suspicions, China has become Japan’s top trading partner, supplanting the United States, with Chinese scholars recognizing “the need to further enhance economic and security cooperation with Japan.”

While it has been weakened by recent poor business performance, Japan remains the region’s second-largest economy with an “understated” soft power backed by its Western allies, principally the U.S.

According to Cai, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, U.S. influence has diminished since the 1980s with the growth of intraregional trade and investment. However, its presence is still seen essential for regional security and in balancing the regional heavyweights, “not because the U.S. [is] the most loved, but because it [is] the least feared.”

Cai contends that East Asia’s integration has been driven by “market forces and economic imperatives,” resulting in a weaker form of institutionalization than that seen in Western Europe or the Americas.

Nevertheless, globalization and the growing protectionism of the European Union and North America have forced a response from East Asia. Cai shows that the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis sparked moves toward greater regionalization after Asian policymakers realized the impotency of their former loose approach.

While ASEAN is seen as the most institutionalized geopolitical organization in Asia, critics contend that the region’s various forums including APEC, the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Plus Three remain “acronyms in search of a verb.”

Cai points to numerous obstacles to a stronger regional body, including diverse socioeconomic and political systems, U.S. concerns over trade diversion and a collective lack of experience in institution-building.

Yet recent economic partnerships could become building blocks to a broader trade grouping, which Cai sees as “not as unimaginable as it was in the past.” An EU-style East Asia trade grouping would result in a tripolar world trading system, strengthening Asia’s hand at the negotiating table and further weakening multilateralism.

Such a situation might seem improbable in the present climate, despite China’s and regional support for Japan’s disaster recovery. But should the region’s two heavyweights come to an accommodation over historical and other issues, the vision of an “East Asian community” espoused by Japan and others might not seem so impossible.