On May 8, 2011, leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued a joint statement to reaffirm their commitment toward the development of a common position on global issues.
The statement reflects an endeavor to reshape the traditional principles of the ASEAN way by enhancing the significance of binding strictures.
Certainly, the need for a stronger ASEAN comes from the increasing uncertainty of regional and global political landscapes that have become ever more complex and multifaceted.
In East Asia, what started as a single regional entity known as ASEAN has evolved into numerous processes such as APEC, ARF, ASEM, ASEAN plus Three (APT) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). These frameworks are further compounded by the existence of other arrangements such as the Group of Two, Group of 20, Shangri-la Dialogue and the Six-Party Talks.
Yet, it would be misleading to assume that the complexities arising from such developments are to be given a priori. They are in fact the result of regional states’ policy choices brought about by the combination of internal and external circumstances.
Hence, if the purpose of regionalism is to create a cohesive regional architecture with the European Union as a point in reference, East Asian regionalism has definitely been moving in a different direction — the continuous development of various political processes with overlapping memberships and modalities.
The question then becomes: Is having more institutional processes in East Asia a better alternative than trying to achieve a single community?
The popular argument has been to view the existence of multiple frameworks as a temporary measure that will eventually collapse into a single regional architecture. The counterargument, which is more persuasive, is to question that possibility by highlighting the lack of coordination and the competitive nature among the frameworks.
The notion of a regional community unfortunately remains contested in East Asia. One key reason is that the conceptual understanding of a community has been motivated more by national interests than by shared concerns.
Granted, the APT process arose out of a common concern following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and there had been a concerted effort by the Asian leaders in region building.
However, as the crisis wanes and the political landscape changes, so did the momentum of the APT. The formation of the EAS and the attempt to establish new forms of communities as evident from former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s and former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s proposals exemplifies the lack of unity in community building despite the official rhetoric that may suggest otherwise. By prioritizing national over regional interests, the meaning of “community” becomes none other than an evolving process whereby its level of development is dependent on its capability to serve as an avenue for the pursuit of foreign policy goals.
There can therefore be several communities understood as functional processes. Taken as such, East Asian regionalism would have a different trajectory compared to the regional integration model of the EU. Perhaps, the latter is undesirable if the region intends to remain open.
Essentially however, it is the lack of trust among the member states that are preventing any meaningful deepening of cooperation. This raises the issue of the effectiveness of the ASEAN way in socializing and creating a shared identity among the participants.
The confidence-building measures instituted through the various processes, particularly the APT, have been helpful but insufficient in fully dissolving the existence of threat perception.
Despite being the driver of regionalism, ASEAN has had little success in unifying Sino-Japanese relations. Arguably, most of the problems that confront Beijing and Tokyo are beyond ASEAN’s control.
It is precisely because of the lack of command over the trajectories of regional development beyond the shores of Southeast Asia that ASEAN finds it necessary to keep emphasizing its centrality in regional forums. This means that while a strengthened ASEAN would bode well for the future of Southeast Asia, its spillover effects on Northeast Asian politics is limited.
Consequently, the creation of a Community in East Asia is highly dependent on the health of Sino-Japan relations. As long as the two neighbors remain locked in distrust, regionalism will continue to remain an unending process. The inability to embrace each other is not only due to existing historical and territorial conflicts that naturally require solutions but more importantly the fear of the unknown.
Japan is particularly worried by the opaqueness of China’s military expenditure and national defense policy. China has also been flexing its muscles on the South China Sea issue and on Japan’s recent arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain near the Senkaku islets.
Observably, the dynamism of China’s economic rise has given it a newfound confidence in its foreign policy approach. With historical animosity unresolved and China’s economic might surpassing Japan, it is only natural to expect Tokyo to demand clarity so as to accurately predict and decipher Beijing’s assertive behavior. Failing to do so would mean falling back on the United States for security.
During the 2010 ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) meeting, the U.S. proactively expressed its concern with the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Its inclusion as a full-fledged member (together with Russia) at the upcoming EAS meeting will likely embolden Japan and several ASEAN countries to hedge their risk against China.
From a regionalist perspective, risk hedging and even soft balancing would be counterproductive to the creation of a single community.
Observers may be right to argue that they are necessary to provide relief against China’s geopolitical influence, but their presence in intra-regional (and external) relationship would only further frustrate efforts in overcoming Sino-Japanese rivalry.
Without a sustainable vision for the region, East Asia will continue to see a plethora of competitive processes and frameworks at the expense of regional governance.
Benny Teh Cheng Guan is a senior lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, and a visiting research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Tokyo.