|February 5, 2002||atimes.com|
East Asian community remains elusive
By Tim Shorrock
WASHINGTON - Despite recent initiatives by Japan, South Korea, and China to create stronger links between North and Southeast Asia, the dream of a cohesive Asian political and economic community remains elusive, according to a key player in the process.
"East Asia is crucially in need of a multilateral mechanism," said Han Sung-joo, the former South Korean foreign minister who chaired a group of academics from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), South Korea, Japan, and China that spent three years studying regional integration. "It is lagging far behind Europe and North America in this regard." The 10 ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The reasons that ASEAN members and their neighbors to the north encompass one of the few regions in the world without a formal cooperative mechanism are complex, Han told an audience of diplomats and academics at a Washington forum sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation last week. They include the lack of a history of integration, huge differences between Asian nations in size and power, and deep skepticism within individual countries. There is also distrust from the past, in particular, Japan's violent attempt to dominate the area in the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time, neither Japan nor China has taken a leadership role, leaving the initiatives on regional integration to smaller countries.
The overwhelming influence of the United States and its web of bilateral security relationships in the region has also been a disincentive, sometimes leading US officials to express "apprehension if not misgivings" to regional schemes that have left them out, Han said. US pressure was especially strong in the late 1980s, when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad proposed an exclusive Asian economic zone that drew a sharp attack from the first Bush administration. Then secretary of state James Baker "twisted the arms" of the Korean and Japanese foreign ministers to make sure they rejected Mahathir's plans, Han recalled.
Such pressures are a mistake, said Muthiah Alagappa, director of the East-West Center in Washington, and an expert on Asian security and military issues. "It's important for East Asians to have a forum without the presence of the United States," he said. "These forums don't need to be seen as competitive."
The Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998 - which was the time the Clinton administration strongly opposed Japanese proposals for an Asian bank and an Asian Monetary Fund, sparked new initiatives for regional integration. The economic turmoil of the late 1990s "exposed the risks of self-survival", explained Han. "A wide consensus has developed on the need to promote greater cooperation within the region to prevent future crises."
Another factor was the "compressed development" that marked East Asian industrialization and led to considerable political and social stress, said Naoko Munakata, a visiting fellow at the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and a former Japanese trade official. "Asian countries are keenly aware we need appropriate institutions for growth," she said.
The seeds for expanding regional unity were laid in 1993 and 1994, prior to the crisis, when the ASEAN countries (at that time only six) invited South Korea, Japan, and China to join them in broader discussions. That "ASEAN Plus Three" formula has become the foundation for the discussions on Asian cooperation going on today. At a 1998 "ASEAN Plus Three" meeting in Hanoi, at the suggestion of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the regional leaders agreed to set up an East Asia Vision Group to study the ways their countries could cooperate more effectively. Han, a long-time diplomat who is now a political science professor at Seoul's Korea University, was chosen as chairman.
The vision group was made up of two academics from each country. After a three-year study, they submitted an ambitious plan for a regional bloc during the "ASEAN Plus Three" meeting in Brunei in November 2001. It recommended that East Asia move "from a region of nations to a bona fide regional community where collective efforts are made for peace, prosperity, and progress" and identified several areas of cooperation, including the economic, financial, security, environmental, social, and cultural sectors. Curiously, the vision group decided to de-emphasize the "community" aspect of their proposal by using a lower-case "c" when spelling the word. "ASEAN members are rather allergic to the word 'community'," said Han.
In a significant move, Han's group proposed an East Asian Free Trade Area, preferential treatment for developing countries in the Asia region, and expanding the ASEAN investment area to include all of East Asia. "The major recommendation was in the economic area," said Han. Trade liberalization among the 13 "ASEAN Plus Three" countries, he said, will be "way ahead" of the process outlined by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which includes the United States and other nations on the Pacific Rim.
The basic model for free trade will be bilateral deals, such as the agreement now being negotiated between Japan and Singapore. "The FTA with Singapore is a huge sea-change for Japan," said Munakata. In January, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi proposed to expand the community during a week-long trip to Southeast Asia. While in Singapore, he called for a "comprehensive economic partnership" that would stretch "further than trade and investment to such areas as science and technology, human resources development, and tourism". But he offered few specifics.
In a sign of Japan's diminishing influence, China negotiated a much broader agreement with ASEAN in November that calls for an FTA within 10 years uniting China and the 10 ASEAN nations. "Compared with the China deal, which was achieved with startling speed, Japan's plan looks thin, concentrating on educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges and more security cooperation to combat terrorism and piracy," the Australian Financial Review commented after Koizumi's visit to Southeast Asia.
These developments illustrate that progress toward regional integration "will go on at a slow and steady pace", said Han.
(Inter Press Service)
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