Regionalism in Asia

by Anthony Milner

This draft essay appeared in edited form in The Far East and Australasia (Routledge, 2018)

Functionalist and Identity Regionalism: Asia, Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific

In Asia, regionalism—a development attracting growing international interest—is characterized by plurality and contest. The building of regional institutions is not only a response to the need for practical co-operation in commercial, security and other matters, but is also shaped by specific national interests and national rivalries, and by different ways of thinking about ‘region’. Tension between the People’s Republic of China and Japan is one dangerous dynamic in Asia, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea have brought tension to China’s relations with a number of states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The USA–China contest is growing in importance, and Indian strategic manoeuvring is also being closely watched. The term ‘regionalism’ conveys the sense of intentional, top-down region building—involving inter-governmental collaboration. ‘Regionalization’, on the other hand, refers to the growing density of interaction and co-operation between neighbouring countries. Regionalization may or may not be a basis for encouraging regionalism. There has been extensive economic, educational and security interaction between Australia and numerous Asian countries, for instance, and yet Australia has been excluded from certain vital Asian regionalist initiatives.

At the outset, a contest in scope needs to be identified—a contest between ‘Asian’ regionalism and ‘Asia-Pacific’ regionalism. From the middle decades of the 20th century Pacific or Asia-Pacific regionalism—in which the USA’s presence and power tend to be prominent—was influential. However, it has always had to compete with more narrowly Asian (sometimes East Asian or South-East Asian) forms of regionalism. Two significant developments over the last few years are the emergence of a China-centred Asian regionalism, and the formulation of a far broader ‘Indo-Pacific’ vision—one that some see as the basis for some form of new regional association.

Two types of consideration operate in the building of regions and regional communities—and also in analysing such processes—and they often interact with one another. The first lays stress on functionalist or practical dimensions, emphasizing the advantages that can result from co-operation and dialogue in economic, security and other areas. This approach recognizes the range of challenges that are transnational in character: everything from epidemics to terrorist networks or irregular movements of people. The second perspective on regionalism highlights identity issues—focusing on the way the region ought best to be defined. Some analysts have written of ‘cognitive regionalism’, and pointed out that it is primarily concerned with sociocultural definition—and that regional institutions may not just be grounded in a sense of regional identity, but might also be producers and enforcers of the shared norms that can shape regional identity. Identity regionalism, some argue, places a higher priority on patient dialogue and respect for difference, and on the need to be wary of majority decision making and exclusionary sanctions. Many analyses of Asian region building underestimate the importance of identity issues. As a result, they fail to appreciate the obstacles which Asia-Pacific regionalism has faced, and why the planning of a wider Indo-Pacific concept might be frustrated. In distinguishing functionalist from identity regionalism, it should be kept in mind that practical co-operation can assist identity building—and the consolidation of regional identity, for its part, has the potential to provide a stronger foundation for functional collaborations.

Asia-Pacific Regionalism

One initiative in Asia-Pacific regionalism was the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) process, which holds an annual leaders’ meeting for member countries; a meeting at which the leaders of the USA, China and many other Asia-Pacific ‘economies’ (as they are referred to in APEC—see below) are often photographed wearing ‘heritage’ shirts from the host country.

In thinking of the challenges which this and other Asia-Pacific initiatives have confronted, it should be remembered that the idea of the Asia-Pacific being a ‘region’ is relatively recent. With its combination of East Asian, Oceanic and American (largely European-settlement) countries, the Asia-Pacific is immensely diverse. In the 1920s, under US influence—particularly that of the Institute of Pacific Relations, founded in 1925, with headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii, and then New York, USA—a Pan-Pacific regionalism emerged. Conferences were held in China and Japan, as well as in Canada and the USA, and some observers saw the potential for developing greater co-operation between the USA and the United Kingdom to defend Western interests in Asia. Concerned about growing regional tensions, in 1937 the Australian Government (after seeking support from the Japanese ambassador in London) attempted without success to establish a ‘Pacific Pact’ of non-aggression, which would include the USA and the UK, as well as Japan.

Following the Second World War, in 1947 the United Nations (UN) established the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a regional development project incorporating initially Australia, China, France, India, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the USSR, the UK and the USA. As the Cold War developed between the USSR and the USA, Australia was a proponent for another Asia-Pacific body, the Asian and Pacific Council (ASPAC), intended to discuss common problems and mediate differences. Formed in 1966, it also included Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand, as well as the anti-Communist regimes in the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Taiwan and Viet Nam. Although not stressing military issues, ASPAC—particularly because of Australia’s conspicuous role, and the political alignment of its member countries—tended to be seen as an agent for US and Western European power in the region. As it turned out, this new institution made little progress, particularly in comparison with ASEAN (see below), which was established in 1967 and viewed by contemporary observers as possessing ‘an identity of Asian-ness’, which ASPAC never achieved.

In the economic sphere, a Pacific Free Trade Area (PAFTA) was proposed by a prominent Japanese economist in 1965, with the intention of including the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Japan, with regional developing economies as associate members. In 1968 the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded the first Pacific Trade and Development (PAFTAD) conference. Another instance of this Asia-Pacific activism was the establishment in 1967 of a Pacific Basin Economic Council (PBEC), designed to gather together business representatives from the five PAFTA countries.

In the 1960s and 1970s a more ambitious scheme was the Organization for Pacific Trade and Development (OPTAD), which would include South-East Asian and possibly South American countries—but only those fostering liberal economic systems—and would deal with certain security issues as well as economic ones. Although this proposal gained only limited support, a new organization, the Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference (PECC), devised in particular by Japanese and Australian representatives, was constituted in 1980. Including academics and government officials as well as business executives, the PECC process—a non-governmental, so-called Track Two endeavour (i.e. not a formal governmental initiative)—progressed steadily, focusing consistently on the liberalization of trade. Such Pacific regionalism, however, was regarded with suspicion in influential quarters in South-East Asia as being intended to benefit rich countries, and to serve the interests of the West during the Cold War. There was a fear also that ASEAN, founded 13 years earlier, might be damaged by competition with wider-membership bodies such as OPTAD. If any organization was to lead a wider regionalism—so some argued—it ought to be ASEAN.

With the end of the Cold War, some ASEAN states (for example, Indonesia) were more relaxed about regional co-operation on an ‘Asia-Pacific’ basis. The decline in economic nationalism in Asia during the 1980s, with a growing commitment to liberalization—as many economies struggled to cope with declining prices for their commodity exports—and a desire to promote both trade and international investment, made a range of Asian countries become more amenable to co-operative Asia-Pacific arrangements, at least in the economic sphere. A consideration here was that in the 1980s the USA was becoming an increasingly important market for many Asian countries.


Such a functionalist approach to regionalism was strongly evident in the founding of APEC. In 1988, when Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke proposed a ‘more formal intergovernmental vehicle of regional co-operation’, he echoed suggestions that were being made by other countries, particularly Japan and the USA. In all these cases the emphasis was being laid on economic objectives. Hawke himself stated that the first purpose of APEC would be to assist the Uruguay Round of international trade negotiations, under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the predecessor of the World Trade Organization). Also, the word used to describe members of APEC was ‘economies’ not ‘states’ or ‘countries’. This covered the separate membership of Hong Kong and Taiwan, but in addition, to quote the APEC website, it conveyed that the ‘APEC cooperative process is predominantly concerned with trade and economic issues, with members engaging with one another as economic entities’.

Although the USA was not initially among the member economies, US participation had been anticipated from the beginning, and was welcomed by every country (with the exception of Malaysia). ASEAN participation was also considered necessary, especially by Japan and the USA, and much diplomacy was required to convince South-East Asian countries of the advantages of joining. The promoters of APEC, however, resisted the argument that the new institution should be based on ASEAN—in particular, on the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference (where ASEAN countries meet with their 10 ‘Dialogue Partners’, including the USA and Australia).

Membership of APEC has been unwieldy, providing little or no foundation for identity regionalism. At the outset the participants in APEC were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, together with East Asian nations Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. In 1991 China, Hong Kong and Taiwan joined; then Papua New Guinea and Mexico in 1993, Chile in 1994, and Peru, the Russian Federation and Viet Nam in 1998. In terms of geographic positioning, economic scale, governmental system, ruling ideology and cultural traditions, the different countries or economies in this organization convey no impression of forming a cohesive or natural community.

In the development of APEC, little emphasis was placed on institutions. Even the creation of a secretariat had to wait until 1992, and it was then given little autonomy or authority. On the other hand, an annual Leaders’ Meeting was introduced in 1993—at the urging of Australia—and this has become the most internationally visible APEC event. Australia has in general been a great promoter of APEC, not only because of the economic and even the security advantages it seemed to offer, but also because the country’s leadership regarded the Asia-Pacific as a region in which Australia might hold a legitimate place. In terms of identity regionalism, membership of an Asian community is far more problematic for Australia.

A further feature in APEC’s evolution has been tensions between the USA and many of the Asian members. The USA wanted to bring about trade liberalization through the reduction of tariffs and of a range of other impediments; many Asians saw the USA as unwilling to reform its own trade arrangements, and were also wary of acting too quickly and without consensus. The East Asian (including Japanese) priority tended to be economic co-operation, rather than trade liberalization. As discussed below, in 1990 the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, attempted to initiate an East Asian Economic Group (EAEG), grounded in Asian rather than Pacific identity. Malaysia sought to limit economic liberalization within APEC, including giving support to an expansion in membership (to include Russia, for instance) making the organization even more unwieldy. Responding to such endeavours, Australia proposed an advisory body—eventually given the name ‘Eminent Persons Group’—which (under the leadership of a determined US economist) helped to establish trade liberalization as APEC’s first priority.

An APEC landmark development was the Bogor Declaration of 1994, in which APEC leaders agreed to achieve free and open trade and investment by 2010 for developed countries, and by 2020 for developing countries. Although an ambitious objective, the different member countries interpreted the agreed aims in varying ways, and the acceptance within the APEC organization of the principle of flexibility gave these differences real force. Some countries wished to move more slowly towards liberalization, while others sought exemptions (such as agriculture). The South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs said that APEC’s preference for flexibility meant that members could ‘voluntarily decide on the speed, extent, timing and method of implementing liberalization’. By 1995 the demanding agenda of the Eminent Persons Group had so annoyed many of the Asian member economies that the Group was dissolved.

In retrospect, APEC experienced its worst setback in the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98, which affected Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea and many other regional economies. Responding to the crisis, APEC supported the severe policy recommendations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—with the grouping’s Western members also tending to take the opportunity to push for further trade liberalization—and in addition refused to back a Japanese plan for an Asian Monetary Fund. APEC failed here to identify with the Asian pain, and its lack of effective action sharpened the impression of prioritizing Western, rather than Asian, interests.

Another area in which a Western agenda was perceived to be too dominant was the APEC initiative in moving beyond economic issues. At the 1999 APEC Leaders’ Meeting in New Zealand, the Australian Prime Minister undertook a vigorous diplomatic campaign to convince Indonesia to accept international intervention in East Timor (now Timor-Leste), then experiencing violent turmoil as it progressed towards independence. It was reported that APEC leaders—huddled ‘in hotel rooms and corridors’—‘stitched together a peacekeeping plan for East Timor’, and thus gave the flagging APEC ‘a new lease of life’. The organization, according to former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, always had the potential to be a strategic body, with heads of government of ‘half the world economy and half the world population . . . sitting at the same table with the US President’.

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks, counter-terrorism became a further non-economic theme in APEC. A Leaders’ Statement on counter-terrorism was issued in 2001, and a Counter-Terrorism Task Force established in 2003 to assess counter-terrorism needs and co-ordinate capacity building and technical assistance. Other APEC initiatives were taken in events security planning, financial transactions, travel security and cyber-security. 

Beyond APEC

APEC has achieved some progress in identity regionalism: together with the ‘non-officials’ of PECC, PAFTAD and PBEC—mainly economists and business executives—its political leaders and officials have directly or indirectly promoted the concept of the ‘Asia-Pacific’. Advances in economic co-operation have also helped security institution building in the Asia-Pacific context. For example, in 1992 Australian, New Zealand and US representatives joined Asian specialists in Seoul, South Korea, to form the Track Two organization, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), and some of these CSCAP founding members had been active earlier in the economic organizations, PAFTAD and PECC. Like its economic predecessors, CSCAP welcomed government officials, nominally in their private capacities, and also sought to be relevant to government, and in particular to contribute to state-to-state regional co-operation. Finally, CSCAP borrowed from PECC in being structured on the basis of national committees and working groups—the latter bringing together specialists from a range of countries to study and make recommendations on specific regional problems.

Despite CSCAP’s Asia-Pacific scope, one of its strengths is that it has been built on existing regional institutions, even when they themselves are grounded in an Asian rather than an Asia-Pacific vision. The most important such institution has been the well-established Track Two ASEAN-ISIS: a network of institutes of strategic and international studies from around the ASEAN region (founded in 1988).

With respect to Track One (official diplomacy between governments), at the end of the Cold War the Australian and Canadian Governments had proposed an ‘Asia-Pacific Security Conference’ at government-to-government level, modelled on the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe. ASEAN-ISIS and some non-ASEAN CSCAP representatives took the view that the best strategy was to build on existing regional institutions, and noted that ASEAN already had an institutional structure—the annual Post-Ministerial Conferences with ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners (the USA, Australia and many more)—for reaching out to a range of Asia-Pacific countries. The ASEAN countries were now happy to play a central role in a new, inclusive security institution. (Singapore, in particular, saw such an institution as a way of helping to maintain US strategic involvement in Asia.) The outcome was the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF, established in 1994), which was in a sense a product of both Asia-Pacific and Asian (or rather, South-East Asian) regionalism, and, as discussed below, an institution that has had only limited practical success.

In terms of identity regionalism, the whole idea of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ has seemed problematic. Even in Japan, which has often championed Asia-Pacific projects, the influential politician Shintaro Ishihara called APEC a ‘fuzzy concept’, arguing that it is ‘incredible to think you can build a complex economic community around the fact that members have a shoreline on the Pacific’. Another observation made was that ‘to the degree there is a sense of identity (in the Asia-Pacific), it tends to be Asian, not Pacific’.

The most recent Asia-Pacific scheme was the 2008 proposal by the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to create an ‘Asia Pacific Community’ (APC). The idea was advocated primarily in functional terms, emphasizing the need for a ‘regional institution which spans the entire Asia-Pacific region’ and which would be able ‘to engage in the full spectrum of dialogue, co-operation and action on economic and political matters and future challenges to security’. Whatever practical advantages it may have offered, the proposal met with opposition and sometimes hostility in Asia. The new institution was seen as unnecessary by many observers, and also as a challenge to Asian, especially ASEAN, projects. The fate of the Rudd scheme was, in addition, a reminder that the ‘Asia-Pacific’ idea had still accumulated little emotive substance in Asian countries.


The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been used increasingly over the last few years. In many interpretations its geographic reach runs from the western part of the Indian Ocean to the most eastern parts of the Pacific. For some commentators it is merely a geostrategic concept—a framing device that recognizes trade flows, and the importance of oceans—but for others it is a new experiment in regional architecture, firmly incorporating the USA. There are calls from different quarters for a ‘diplomatic and maritime security infrastructure’ that will ‘reduce risks of conflict’ across the ‘Indo-Pacific’, for an ‘Indo-Pacific architecture’, and for ‘Indo-Pacific Cooperation’.

The ‘Indo-Pacific’ vision has had appeal for Australians over a relatively long period, capturing Australia’s strategic concerns to both West and East. In 2010 then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the term as a way of stressing India’s importance to the USA. It has also been highlighted (and defined in different ways) in India, Japan and Indonesia. Under the Trump Administration ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been employed repeatedly, and in a way that suggests it is intended to counter China-centric regional initiatives. In 2017–18 the USA, Japan, India and Australia seemed to be engaged in a new attempt to build a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (it was first mooted a decade ago), and spoke of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific strategy’, with an emphasis on freedom of navigation, support for international law, and economic co-operation. They referred in particular to the creation of infrastructure—a project that was perceived in some quarters to have the potential to compete with ambitious infrastructure initiatives of China. China, not surprisingly, has perceived both the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ vision as hostile—and some proponents of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ argue that they are responding to China’s own determined region building. In South-East Asia there is also anxiety in some quarters about an Indo-Pacific project, seeing it as a possible threat to ASEAN-led regionalism (see below), and an indication of a growing and dangerous contest between major powers.

Asian Regionalism

From the perspective of identity regionalism there were important steps towards building an ‘Asian’ consciousness by the beginning of the 20th century. ‘Asia is one’, announced the Japanese art historian Okakura Tenshin (1862–1913), and he explained that ‘not even the snowy barriers’ between Chinese and Indian civilizations could ‘interrupt for one moment the broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought of every Asiatic race’—and which distinguishes these people from ‘the Mediterranean and Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and search out the means, not the end, of life’. On the other side of ‘Asia’, the Bengali religious leader Vivekananda (1863–1902) was insisting that ‘on the material plane, Europe has mainly been the basis during modern times’, but on the ‘spiritual plane, Asia has been the basis throughout the history of the world’.

Such thinking about ‘Asia’ developed co-operatively (and often in contest with other types of social vision). Vivekananda visited Japan; Okakura spent a year in India. The Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who travelled to South-East Asia as well as to Japan and China, believed that it was through Okakura that people first ‘came to know there was such a thing as an Asiatic mind’. Initially, there was resistance in China to ideas of Asian unity, partly because of historic Chinese disdain towards many Asian peoples, but in the 1920s the nationalists—led by Sun Yat-Sen—began to speak of an Asian spiritual unity. One great spur towards the celebration of ‘Asia’ was the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905, which was perceived by many observers as an indication that Asia in general would soon be free of Western imperialism. Japan encouraged this sentiment, inviting Asian students to Japanese universities and forming groups such as the Pan-Asiatic Association to foster intraregional relations.

In 1943—at the time that the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere in the Pacific War was being presented as a culmination of ‘Asianist’ aspirations—one Japanese author described the Russo–Japanese War as having ‘awakened from a long night’s sleep this humiliated, disrupted, miserable and numb Asia’. In the Pacific War context there were references also to the ‘ancient glory of the spiritual life of Asian peoples’, and it was argued that Japan had to a certain extent absorbed the influence of both China and India, especially with the expansion of Buddhism during China’s T’ang dynasty (in power between the seventh and 10th centuries).

Despite the military defeat of Japan in 1945, some of Japan’s aspirations for Asia remained influential. It could be argued today that while the modern nation state system of Asia was largely a product of Western colonial influence, region building in Asia owes much to Japan. After the Second World War, India took up the ‘Asia’ project with the 1947 Inter-Asian Relations Conference. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, spoke of ‘weld[ing] the people and governments of Asia together’ to create a ‘more permanent arrangement’ for ‘effective mutual consultation and concerted effort in the pursuit of common aims’.

In 1954 there was a meeting in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), involving Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Pakistan, which assisted in ending the first Indo–China War. President Sukarno of Indonesia commented that ‘the affairs of Asia’ were now ‘the concerns of the Asian peoples themselves’. At the Bandung Conference, which followed in 1955 (held in Bandung, Indonesia) and included African as well as Asian representatives, Sukarno spoke of mobilizing ‘all the spiritual, all the moral, all the political strength of Asia on the side of peace’.

South-East Asia

In the ensuing decades—as Asia became engulfed in the Cold War, with divisions between communist, anti-communist and neutral countries—Asian regionalism made less progress. What did emerge was a narrower, South-East Asian regionalism—although this smaller region had developed very little sense of identity, and encompassed immense cultural and political diversity. Historically, in mainland South-East Asia there had been a range of both large and small Theravada Buddhist kingdoms (large 19th-century capitals included Bangkok and Mandalay) and an expanding Confucian state, Viet Nam. The Archipelago comprised the Philippines, long under Spanish domination, and a multitude of Muslim sultanates—some tiny, river-based polities with populations of only a few thousand. Most of South-East Asia had come under Indian cultural influence in the early centuries ce, but the expansion of Islamic influence, commencing in about the 14th century, was limited largely to the Archipelago. In the 19th and 20th centuries the region was divided into French, Dutch, US and British spheres. Siam remained independent, but the building of the modern nation state of Thailand nevertheless owed much to French and British tutelage.

Western colonialism brought regional unity of one type, with the spread of the idea of nationalism and the nation state, but in other ways the differences between European political and legal systems meant further division. The territorial borders of the colonial states also contrasted with the more elastic borders of the old kingdoms, and tended to impose limits where there had once been fluidity in movements of people. The fact that people in the former colonial states of South-East Asia, particularly the élites, were likely to look towards The Hague, Paris, Washington or London for cultural influences, and to speak the languages of the respective colonial powers, placed a further restriction on the development of a general South-East Asian consciousness.

The geographic concept of ‘South-East Asia’ was itself poorly developed until the second half of the 20th century. True, outsiders to the region had sometimes perceived an element of unity: the Chinese had long used Nanyang and Nanhai with reference to expanses of territory in what came to be called ‘South-East Asia’, and the Sanskrit ‘Suvarnabhumi’ (‘land of gold’) also had referred to extended areas of the region. The colonial administrator Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) wrote of a ‘field’ lying between China and India, and modern Indian historians, noting the early influence of Buddhism and Hinduism on South-East Asian societies, often used the phrase ‘Greater India’. During the Second World War the region was given an administrative basis for unity. Japan brought the whole of South-East Asia together under one imperial authority, with members of the élites of the different colonial states meeting with one another at Japanese-sponsored conferences. For their part, the Allies created a ‘South-East Asia Command’, bringing the expression ‘South-East Asia’ into more general usage. By the end of the war this Command reached from Burma into both Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies.

The emergence of the idea of ‘South-East Asia’ among the new political leadership of the region was evident in 1947 at the New Delhi ‘Asian Relations’ conference, when some South-East Asians wished to distinguish South-East Asian interests not just from Western interests, but also from those of the large Asian powers. Representatives from Burma, Indonesia, Malaya, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam discussed forming a ‘South-East Asian Association’. The Burmese leader, Aung San (1915–47), who understood ‘the increasing universal interdependence of nations’, spoke of the need to ‘rediscover our Asian destiny’ and contemplated a South-East Asian ‘entity’ that might one day be brought into a ‘bigger union with the participation of other parts of Asia as well’.

Further ‘South-East Asia’ initiatives included a ‘South-East Asia League’, involving representatives from the French colonial region (Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Viet Nam), Indonesia, Malaya and Thailand, which was perceived to be left-wing in orientation. The 1954 meeting of leaders in Colombo (mentioned above) was actually referred to as the ‘Conference of the South-East Asian Prime Ministers’, although some of the countries included were later to be categorized as ‘South’ rather than ‘South-East’ Asian. At the Bandung Conference in 1955 there was no particular ‘South-East Asian’ emphasis. Although countries that would later join ASEAN were represented, they were at this stage prioritizing Cold War alignments.

One product of the Cold War was the anti-communist Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), established in 1954. The concept of ‘South-East Asia’ in this case included Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the UK and the USA, as well as the Philippines and Thailand, and the aims of the organization were specifically security-oriented. SEATO was never perceived to be locally driven, and this was one of the reasons that even the USA was soon pessimistic about its future. In terms of identity regionalism, SEATO—like ASPAC (discussed above)—possessed little potency. It was dissolved in 1977.

During this period potentially more productive initiatives were emerging from within the region. In the late 1950s, arguing that ‘the feeling of ‘‘one region’’ [had] been stunted’ in South-East Asia, and that economic growth there had been too greatly influenced by ‘relations with countries outside the region’, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proposed an ‘Association of Southeast Asia’ (ASA). As it turned out, only Thailand and the Philippines could be convinced to join, and the organization was short-lived, lasting only from 1961 to 1967. Although ASA was given an anti-communist orientation, the Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs in particular invoked a broader ‘Asian’ sentiment when supporting the new body; also, membership was open to ‘Asian’ countries that would later not be identified as ‘South-East Asian’, such as India and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka).

Another regional initiative in the 1960s was ‘Maphilindo’, which was designed to bring together the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaya, and to address the issues that were arising between these three emerging states. The issue of regional identity was approached with much seriousness. The President of the Philippines, Diosdado Macapagal, spoke of the ‘historic unity and common heritage among the Malay peoples’, seeking to reach beneath the layers of US and Spanish influence in his country to establish common ethnic ground with his neighbours. Sharpening tension between the three member countries of Maphilindo over the formation of Malaysia in 1963—in particular over the incorporation of Sarawak and North Borneo in the new state—made this another short-lived exercise, but the initiative did demonstrate a concern for cultural substance in region building, a continuing South-East Asian theme in the decades ahead.


ASEAN, established in 1967, built upon these earlier projects in its leaders’ concerns about both identity and functional regionalism, and has been a relatively successful endeavour. It needs to be recalled that when ASEAN was founded, with the Bangkok Declaration, South-East Asia was considered one of the world’s troubled regions: an arena for Cold War struggle, where countries recently emerged from Western colonial rule were still contesting borders and struggling against minority population movements, as well as facing the challenge of communism. The ASEAN organization was designed and launched in a South-East Asia described by the historian Milton Osborne in 1970 (in the title of a widely read book) as a ‘Region of Revolt’.

ASEAN at first included only Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, all non-communist states. Anxiety about communism—then dominant in Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam as well as in China—was a driving factor, along with a general concern to promote stability. An effective regional organization would, it was felt, put South-East Asian countries in a stronger position to deal with the major powers, communist or non-communist, and also assist in settling disputes between its own member countries (such as those that had taken place between Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia). It has been argued, as well, that far from intending to pool sovereignty in the new institution (as in the case of the European Union—EU), ASEAN’s founders believed that the new organization would enhance the national sovereignty of the member states. Although each country had its own reasons for joining ASEAN—Singapore, for instance, was concerned about being a small, ethnic-Chinese republic with large Muslim neighbours—they were all still in the process of nation building, and membership of such a regional organization would assist in consolidating borders and gaining international respect.

Economic co-operation was a further ASEAN objective. The founder countries favoured free enterprise, and believed that economic development and the reduction of poverty would help them to resist communism. President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines reflected that in co-operating with one another, ASEAN countries might remove the economic causes of popular revolt faster than by taking individual action. One key task was to attract foreign investment, and this required co-operative action to achieve regional stability.

The issues dealt with by ASEAN in its early years included the dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines over ownership of Sabah (North Borneo), by this time formally incorporated in Malaysia. Another challenge was establishing a regional security formula—a deliberation that resulted in the ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality) Declaration of 1971. This Declaration not only sought neutrality for the region vis-à-vis the struggle between the major powers, but also stressed the territorial sovereignty of ASEAN members with respect to one another. One problem in implementing ZOPFAN was that some countries (such as Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines) seemed to place more emphasis than others (Indonesia and Malaysia) on maintaining the involvement of the USA in the region to reinforce ASEAN neutrality.

At the first ASEAN leaders’ summit, held in Bali, Indonesia in 1976, there were demands for defence co-operation between the states, but this proposal was not supported. What the meeting did adopt was the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation, which (in the words of Amitav Acharya) ‘outlined the norms that were to form the basis of ASEAN’s code of interstate behaviour’. These norms—which not only had practical implications but also added substance to regional identity—included mutual respect for territorial sovereignty, a commitment not to interfere in the internal affairs of any country, and the settling of disputes by peaceful means. Two Malay words assumed critical importance in ASEAN’s operational style: musyawarah[SS1] , or consultation, a principle first introduced in the short-lived Maphilindo organization; and trillian, or consensus. Invoking such terms, ASEAN aspires to sensitive diplomacy, avoiding confrontational or legalistic decision making.

ASEAN’s cautious, incremental progress is also evident in its leadership’s determination to avoid strong institutionalization—to take a different path from that of the EU, with its large and powerful bureaucracy and the pooling of national sovereignties in a central body. The consensus-seeking gradualism of ASEAN in economic reform has been adopted partly because the economies of member countries have tended to be competitive with one another. In 1977 there was agreement on ASEAN Preferential Trading Arrangements, an initiative aimed at liberalizing trade between member countries, but the bulk of trade continued to flow to foreign markets. The need to negotiate more effectively with external economies was reason for co-operation; combining for this purpose, however, also helped to promote a greater sense of regional, as against more narrowly national, identity.

A significant achievement of ASEAN has been to expand beyond the original five members, and to bring together, step by step, all the countries of South-East Asia—a region that now incorporates some 630m. people with a GDP of some US $2,500,000m. The task was complex. Incorporating Brunei in 1984 was relatively easy: a small but wealthy sultanate in Borneo—once incorporating a far larger area of the island—Brunei had decided to stay outside the Malaysian federation when it was formed in 1963. ASEAN membership had obvious advantages for securing the state’s sovereignty within the region. The challenge of incorporating the communist states of Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam, and the military dictatorship of Myanmar, was more formidable, given their historical relations with ASEAN’s founding states. Thailand had been engaged in the Viet Nam War in support of the USA, and had also experienced tense relations with Myanmar over a long period. The Indonesian Government was strongly anti-communist—having undergone a harshly violent civil war in the 1960s in which many supposed communists were slaughtered. Malaysia had experienced its own armed struggle against communists, particularly in the late 1940s and 1950s—known as ‘the Emergency’—and that conflict was only officially settled in 1989, when the Communist Party of Malaya signed separate peace treaties with the Malaysian Government and Thailand’s southern military commanders.

The Cold War, especially after the 1975 communist victories in the formerly French-ruled Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, had the potential to leave South-East Asia divided for generations. Viet Nam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978, viewed as repugnant given ASEAN’s commitment to non-interference and peaceful problem solving, made the situation even more difficult. ASEAN’s campaign against Viet Nam, including within the UN, helped to promote unity among its member states, but also made rapprochement with Viet Nam more difficult. The eventual UN-led peace settlement in Cambodia (1991), encouraged by the ending of the Cold War, respected ASEAN’s insistence on an end to Vietnamese occupation, and removed a key obstacle to the expansion of the organization.

By the late 1980s the Thai Government was promoting economic relations with Viet Nam—by then beginning to open up its economy. Viet Nam itself saw advantages in closer co-operation with ASEAN, given its attempts to construct new international relationships beyond the old Soviet communist bloc, and eventually joined in 1995. Laos was admitted two years later, along with Myanmar, and Cambodia joined in 1999. All countries usually defined as South-East Asian were now incorporated in a single organization.

To advance ASEAN’s different aims, the ‘ASEAN Charter’ was brought into force in 2008, giving the organization a legal identity and enhancing its institutional machinery. Furthermore, plans were laid for three types of ‘Community’: an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC); an ASEAN Political-Security Community (with functions including conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict peacebuilding); and an ASEAN Social-Cultural Community. The first two were scheduled to be implemented by 2015, but by the end of that year the ASEAN leadership—although claiming that much progress had been achieved—admitted that the community building was by no means complete. There has been some success in lowering intraregional tariffs, together with liberalizing initiatives to assist the services, trade and investment flows; however, it is also noted that the areas of agriculture and automotive production continue to be protected by member nations, and employment mobility remains heavily restricted. Furthermore, intraregional trade in ASEAN is very low—certainly compared to the EU. Commenting on the AEC, one private sector leader, Munir Abdul Majid, has concluded that ‘there is much work to be done’.

How successful has ASEAN been, more generally? Apart from comment on the slow implementation of its economic and security objectives, ASEAN has also been criticized for not taking effective action during the ‘haze’ crisis, in which smoke from forest fires in Indonesia and eastern Malaysia have caused health and other problems across the region. ASEAN was also accused of an ineffectual response to the East Timor crisis of 1999–2000, when East Timor was engaging in violent separation from Indonesia. In 2012 there was much disappointment when the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, failed to issue the normal communiqué. The communiqué had been intended to address the tensions in the South China Sea between some ASEAN countries and China, and the Cambodian host Government was believed to have succumbed to Chinese pressure in its decision to break with precedent. In response to this frustration, however, Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs undertook lively ‘shuttle diplomacy’, holding a series of meetings with his counterparts, and securing unanimous agreement to a ‘Six Principle’ plan for approaching South China Sea disputes. 

It has been difficult to maintain ASEAN unity in these disputes, but the change of leadership in 2016 in the Philippines—the country that had been most vocal in challenging China—assisted a more collaborative ASEAN approach. In March 2018 Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented that the situation in the South China Sea had ‘cooled down somewhat’ over the previous year. When one examines the various ASEAN meetings that have focused on this dangerous and difficult China–South-East Asia contest, it is important to note the patient and sometimes skilful diplomacy that has been employed.

Careful ASEAN diplomacy was also essential in the opening up of Myanmar since 2008. Surin Pitsuwan (Secretary-General of ASEAN in 2008–12) claimed with some justification that ASEAN had helped to ‘raise the level of comfort’ of the Myanmar leadership in engaging with the international community—giving those leaders ‘time and space’ rather than exerting Western-style, sanction-led coercion. In the last few years Myanmar has presented its ASEAN partners with the increasingly urgent problem of Rohingya refugees flooding out of the country. The problem is complex, and there have been calls for a comprehensive regional response. In 2015 Mahathir Mohamad—who was elected Prime Minister of Malaysia for the second time in May 2018—even demanded that Myanmar be expelled from ASEAN for its ‘merciless killing’ of Rohingya refugees.

The emphasis on national sovereignty within ASEAN is often identified as the stumbling block preventing closer practical co-operation. Although the organization highlights a commitment not to intervene in the internal affairs of member states, national sovereignty is not a long-established institution in South-East Asia. In a number of countries it is still a work in progress. The post-colonial nations—influenced by Western colonialism—are far different in structure from the old kingdoms and sultanates of the region. The pre-colonial polities, often in tributary relations with one another, and with China, offer a heritage of what might be called overlapping sovereignty and hierarchical sovereignty. It is a valuable heritage, one might argue, in developing the type of diplomacy and compromise required in the building of a regional organization.

ASEAN has often been accused of being a mere ‘talking shop’ , but talk can be productive in identity terms. There is certainly much deliberation, with the vast number of Ministerial and Senior Officials’ meetings, as well as technical- or working-level groups. There is an ASEAN Chamber of Commerce, the ASEAN Business Forum, the ASEAN University Network, the ASEAN Vegetable Oils Club—the list goes on and on. These various bodies sometimes achieve tangible results, but also the sheer relentlessness of the regional conversation helps to promote a sense of community reaching beyond national units.

How far, however, has this sense of ‘we-ness’ progressed? Some businesspeople and professions have begun to operate on an ASEAN basis; there are also developments in the arts and in sport—such as the ASEAN Film Festival and the ASEAN University Sports Council—and increased air travel facilitated by budget airlines has helped regional networking. The ASEAN organization, however, has been accused of focusing too strictly on government-to-government relations. In the view of one critic, there is ‘no participation by any real interest group—be it religious, civil or ethnic—and the private sector finds very little reason to take ASEAN seriously’. Even at the élite level, surveys have suggested that there continues to be a high level of distrust in relations between the different national communities of ASEAN. As Chair of ASEAN in 2015, Malaysia confronted this issue of ‘we-ness’ by focusing on the promotion of a ‘People-Centred ASEAN’. The Prime Minister employed high rhetoric, declaring this was ‘all about us being ASEAN, recognizing that something special binds us, feeling that ASEAN is coursing through our veins’.

In the absence of a single religious, cultural or moral heritage, or a local language that could be a regional lingua franca, the quest for identity substance in ASEAN is a continuing struggle—yet the struggle is taking place. From the outset English was used as the means of communication in ASEAN. Although not mentioned in the Bangkok Declaration of 1967, it is called the ‘working language of ASEAN’ in the 2008 ASEAN Charter. In 1997 Malaysia failed to get Malay adopted as a second ASEAN language—despite the consideration that it is a national language in four ASEAN states (Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore) and was used in pre-colonial times during diplomatic and commercial negotiations with other South-East Asian countries.

There is an advantage in having a common working language, rather than a multiplicity of languages—such as the EU, which incurs great expense in translation costs. Although the argument has been made that English, as a foreign language, cannot have an emotive value, this may change. Even in Viet Nam, which was not in the British colonial sphere, huge numbers of people today learn English, and the use of English is no longer automatically linked to the colonial era. In the words of a Cambodian commentator: ‘When we use English we don’t think about the United States or England. We only need to think about the need to communicate.’ Another consideration is that English, despite its origins, is to some extent being ‘ASEANized’. It is said to be developing an independent character, differing from the range of versions of Asian English spoken around the region.

ASEAN and Wider Asian Regionalism

One of the purposes of ASEAN, as described in the 2008 Charter, is to maintain its ‘centrality and proactive role’ as the ‘primary driving force . . . in a regional architecture that is open, transparent and inclusive’. Looking at the development of Asian regionalism, particularly over the last two decades, ASEAN has found itself at the focal point. In government-level institution building, it is not the most powerful states of Asia—China, Japan and India—that have led. The disputes between them are substantial. Furthermore, neither US nor Australian Asia-Pacific initiatives have prevailed. ASEAN, with its talent for careful community building, cautious establishment of consensus decision making, and avoidance of penalizing sanctions and abrasive language, has proved to be a case study in effective small power regionalism.

Outside government, particularly in the economic sphere, some of the larger states have played a dynamic regional role. Japan did so as it recovered from military defeat in the Pacific War. In what has sometimes been called the ‘Flying Geese’ paradigm, Japan, as the leading ‘goose’, moved away from labour-intensive to capital-intensive production, and the ‘geese’ that followed—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore in the first group, other South-East Asian countries and China further back—benefited from taking up lower-productivity tasks. This flying pattern, hierarchical as it is, fostered a form of economic unity across East Asia. With respect to the intensification of Japan’s relations with South-East Asia, a critical development was the 1985 Plaza Accord (concluded by France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Japan, the UK and the USA), through which the US dollar radically depreciated against the Japanese yen (and the Korean won). In these new circumstances—advantageous to US, not Japanese, exports—the Japanese, already confronting escalating labour and land costs at home, increased their investments in South-East Asia, developing manufacturing and joint ventures. In achieving cheaper, more competitive production, this strategy also created production networks that promoted regionalization.

Japan continues to be a leader in trade and investment in ASEAN, but, particularly in the 21st century, China’s economic engagement across East Asia has expanded rapidly. Now the region’s largest trading partner, surpassing Japan (and the USA), its share of regional investment is also growing. An ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement, planned over a decade, came into effect in 2010—although it is not clear how critical this government-to-government agreement was to the trade boom that followed. In addition to the ASEAN dimension, China is today South Korea’s leading trading partner, with Japan second. In the case of Japan, China is again well ahead of other countries. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (see below), introduced in 2013, is a highly ambitious development project likely to have an impact extending geographically well beyond the Asian region.

The respective roles of China and Japan in the region’s economy tend to be assessed in the context of political rivalry between the two powers, yet both have been vital in economic regionalization. With respect to political regionalism, this rivalry has meant that both China and Japan have found it difficult to assume a leadership role. Actions by one side immediately provoke suspicion on the part of the other—particularly since the assertive Shinzo Abe came to power in Japan in December 2012. Japan is confronting China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, and has also been taking steps to strengthen its defence relationship with South-East Asia (for instance, with the Philippines and Viet Nam).

Partly because of anxieties about China, Japan has at times been a proponent of Asia-Pacific regionalism—for instance, co-operating with Australia, the other key regional ally of the USA, in the development of APEC. In the case of East Asian regionalism, both Japan and China have seen the advantages of ASEAN assuming at least nominal leadership—although, as discussed below, there has been some modification in China’s position since 2014. Supporting ASEAN is partly a matter of convenience—if not ASEAN, how would a decision be made between Japan and China? However, it is also true that ASEAN has an impressive track record in region building and, in addition, has developed its own broader ambitions.

As ASEAN gained confidence as a regional organization, its leaders began to initiate moves towards building Asian and not merely South-East Asian regionalism. Initially they had sought to hold major powers at arm’s length, now ASEAN developed mechanisms to engage them. In the case of Malaysia’s long-serving leader Mahathir Mohamad, who in 1990 proposed the EAEG, this involved a direct challenge to Asia-Pacific regional institutions in which the USA was prominent.

ASEAN also engaged a broader international community when, in 1984, it initiated the annual Post-Ministerial Conferences with its Dialogue Partners (Australia was the first of these). In later years a security organization involving ministers of foreign affairs, the ARF—now involving 27 members—emerged from this Post-Ministerial structure. The ARF, which (as discussed above) was an initiative stimulated by suggestions from outside South-East Asia, held its first ministerial meeting in 1994 and quickly established three objectives: first, to establish confidence-building measures among regional states; second, to develop preventive diplomacy; and finally, to engage in conflict resolution. As it turned out, the ARF has been the arena for a clash of diplomatic cultures and expectations, with Western officials tending to be frustrated by ASEAN’s emphasis on consensus and non-binding agreements, and a tendency to favour reticence or quietness; for their part many Asian officials are irritated by what they see as the confrontational (and often futile) approach, for instance, of US and Australian officials. With the USA, China and Japan as members—to refer only to the most dangerous regional dynamics—it is no surprise that progress has been difficult to achieve, and that the institution’s activities are still largely limited to confidence building. Even efforts towards transparency through the publication of national defence White Papers, or the establishment of a regional arms register, have been frustrated. Nevertheless, the ARF, assisted by the Track Two process, CSCAP (see above), has helped to promote communication in the wider region, and to spread norms intended to benefit interstate relations. The different member nations—even the major powers, the USA, China and Japan—are subject to a degree of regional socialization in the ARF. They have to explain their policies, and they do discuss such explosive issues as the conflict of territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The ARF has promoted functional co-operation in such areas as cyber-security, maritime security and counter-terrorism. Its meetings also offer the opportunity for important informal corridor meetings—many of which are bilateral. The large number of member states certainly makes the ARF unwieldy, but it also offers a valuable opportunity to become familiar with the whole range of security issues troubling the extended region.

In terms of identity regionalism, a more important regionalist initiative was Prime Minister Mahathir’s advocacy of the EAEG. As a critic of Asia-Pacific region building, he had complained that ‘we are told we may not call ourselves East Asians as Europeans call themselves Europeans’ but ‘must call ourselves Pacific people’. His EAEG concept was supported by China, and by influential circles in Japan. It was opposed with determination, however, by the USA, which wished to defend the Asia-Pacific APEC process against the narrower Asian regionalism, and used forceful tactics with Japan and South Korea to achieve this end.

Particularly in the 1990s there was much talk about ‘Asian values’—especially, but not only, in Malaysia and Singapore. These values included emphasizing community over individual, placing order above personal freedom, family loyalty, thrift and hard work. Such values, it was argued, were essential in bringing about the economic advances that had created the so-called miracle economies of Asia: they were integral to the ‘rise of the East’. In both South-East and North-East Asia, articles appeared with such titles as ‘The Asianisation of Asia’ and ‘The future belongs to Asians’. In 1993 an Asian Summit was held in Bangkok to help to define ‘Asian approaches to human rights’. In the following year a South Korean journalist wrote of a ‘suspicion arising from Malaysia to Korea to Japan, that the Western media’s agenda on human rights, and environmental protection’ was a ‘means to keep Asia from developing further economically’.

In response to these developments, many commentators—especially Western ones—ridiculed the idea of a homogeneous ‘Asia’. They failed to recognize the power of the ‘Asia’ aspiration, and pointed to deep differences dividing the region—differences in business cultures, attitudes regarding the role of government, foreign policy traditions, etc.—and argued that some so-called Asian values (including the work ethic) had in fact been shaped by encounters with Western societies. The collapse of Asian economies in the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis offered further opportunity to puncture the ‘Asia’ rhetoric. The crisis, said one Western critic, laid to rest the ‘unquestioning worship of Asian values…capitalism in its free-wheeling, Anglo-Saxon variety is coming into its own’. As it turned out, many influential East Asians drew a different lesson. Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew insisted that Asian values had nothing to do with the crisis: otherwise, ‘how come Hong Kong and Singapore have not been affected?’ Malaysia’s Mahathir spoke of a ‘Western conspiracy’ seeking to ‘shake up the economies of the Asian miracle nations’. In many parts of East Asia there was a view that the Western-dominated IMF and APEC had been of little practical use. On the other hand, China—by maintaining the value of its currency, financially assisting damaged countries and boosting its own economy—won both gratitude and respect.

In terms of region building, the crisis boosted the ‘Asia’ project—encouraging a revival of Mahathir’s earlier EAEG initiative. In Malaysia in November 1997, the ASEAN countries began to meet with China, Japan and South Korea under the rubric ASEAN + 3. In 1998 an East Asian Vision Group was formed (as a South Korean initiative) to develop a strategy for future East Asian co-operation, and its report highlighted the need to promote East Asian ‘regional identity and consciousness’. An early ASEAN + 3 project of substance—reflecting disillusionment with the Western-led IMF—was the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM)—established at a meeting of ASEAN + 3 ministers of finance in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2000. It was aimed at managing short-term liquidity problems encountered by countries in the region, and funded in particular by China and Japan.

ASEAN + 3 has continued to receive strong support from China, as indicated at an ASEAN-China meeting in 2003, where it was agreed to ‘make the ASEAN + 3 mechanism the main channel to move forward co-operation and regional economic integration in East Asia and Asia as a whole’. ASEAN + 3 also has substantial practical or functionalist substance, including dozens of mechanisms covering such areas as finance, transnational crime, tourism, health, labour, social welfare, energy, telecommunications, agriculture and the environment. Formal statements from ASEAN + 3 also speak of ‘East Asian community building’ and an ‘East Asia Economic Community by 2020’.

Further Asian/ASEAN Initiatives: The East Asia Summit

An ASEAN-led initiative of potentially long-term importance has been the East Asia Summit (EAS), an annual meeting for heads of government from across the Asian and Asia-Pacific region. Commencing in Malaysia, the first meeting was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, with the ASEAN + 3 leaders coming together with the leaders of India, Australia and New Zealand (forming an ASEAN + 6). The USA and Russia joined in 2011 (thus creating an ASEAN + 8). Among the topics that have been dealt with at the EAS are maritime security, environment, energy, global health, natural disasters and pandemic diseases; and large-scale tension in the South China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula are also discussed. The EAS was intended by its founders to be a Leaders’ Meeting to discuss the issues of the day in a relatively informal manner, but a number of associated ministerial and senior officials’ meetings are now held throughout the year, with the aim of implementing different EAS initiatives. The EAS Economic Ministers’ Meeting, for instance, represents the whole range of EAS countries, and is beginning to form an EAS economic track. In such ways, the Summit, with its almost Indo-Pacific-wide membership, is expanding in practical substance. Also, in 2015—again under Malaysian leadership—steps were taken to strengthen its operations, with a better-planned Leaders’ Meeting, additional secretariat support and a greater degree of co-ordination and follow-up between the EAS and other elements in the region’s institutional architecture.

Although the EAS reaches out to a wide range of regional stakeholders, it is an Asian rather than an Asia-Pacific initiative; in addition, the bulk of the region’s business (finance, trade, development and connectivity issues) is still handled in ASEAN + 3—the core East Asian body, which also seeks to fulfil the identity aspirations of Asian regionalism—or in ASEAN + 1 meetings (especially with China or Japan). There is significant disagreement about the respective roles of the two regional institutions, the EAS and ASEAN + 3—and also about what ought to be the proper task of the ARF.

An additional regional institution is the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM). Begun in 2006, it is not leader-initiated but a sectoral mechanism. While the ARF is a meeting of ministers of foreign affairs, the ADMM is defence minister security co-operation designed to promote ‘mutual trust and confidence through greater understanding of defence and security challenges as well as enhancement of transparency and openness’. In 2010 an additional dimension was introduced with the incorporation of ministers of defence from ASEAN’s eight Dialogue Partners (including the ‘+ 3’ countries—China, Japan and South Korea). The broader organization is referred to as ADMM-Plus, and its deliberations have so far covered maritime security, counter-terrorism, disaster management, peacekeeping operations and military medicine. In 2018 the ministers decided to get together on an annual rather than a two-yearly basis, and there are numerous meetings of senior and mid-ranking officials, as well as experts’ working groups. In 2016 an experts’ working group on cyber-security was established. In 2013 a military medicine and disaster relief exercise was held in Brunei, and involved troops from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Viet Nam and the USA.

ASEAN calls the ADMM-Plus an ‘open and outward-looking’ initiative. Anchored in Asian rather than Asia-Pacific regionalism, it possesses strong potential, but one concern has been how it relates to other regional institutions—the ARF, the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (initiated in 2012 under the auspices of the EAS), and the EAS itself. To address the issue of security institution co-ordination, in 2014 CSCAP—exploiting its informal Track Two atmosphere to achieve consensus—offered a blueprint for a more coherent architecture, giving greater leadership to the EAS while affirming ASEAN’s central role. As Chair of ASEAN in 2015, Malaysia took note of this memorandum in developing strategies for upgrading institutional co-ordination.

In the economic area, there is also an important, ASEAN-led regional initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposal for a free trade area including about one-half of the world’s population, announced in 2012. Developed on the foundation of the ASEAN Economic Community, and ASEAN’s existing ‘+ 1’ relations with individual partners—and still under negotiation—it would initially include the 10 ASEAN member states and those countries that already have free trade agreements with ASEAN: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand (the ‘+ 6’ countries). It has also been made clear that the RCEP could incorporate a wider membership, and will deal not only with trade in goods and services but also investment, and economic and technical co-operation. It would, in addition, incorporate a commitment to ‘an effective, efficient and transparent process for consultations and dispute resolution’. Negotiations regarding RCEP have been intense—India, for instance, has been determined to protect its domestic rural sector—but there is optimism in 2018 about the progress being made, and some determination to demonstrate a commitment to ‘free and open trade’ in the context of a growing trade war between the USA and China. Some predict a successful outcome by the time of the ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November.

Alongside the RCEP, the USA—until 2017—had been advocating a plurilateral free trade project, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Under negotiation since 2010, sometimes on the sidelines at APEC meetings, the 12 participating nations came to an agreement on 5 October 2015. The TPP is ambitious, covering such areas as intellectual property, and the negotiations have been difficult, with issues relating to government procurement, the legal rights of multinational corporations and interests of specific, domestic economic sectors. The USA withdrew from the agreement in January 2017, after which the remaining countries agreed on the economic and strategic importance of the TPP, and decided to move ahead with a revised pact. The new name is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It is referred to as TPP-11 and has already been ratified by a number of member countries. In some ways it could prove to be a divisive initiative. Only four members of ASEAN are involved (Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Viet Nam), and there were early reports of some Chinese manufacturing (clothing and textiles) being shifted to TPP ASEAN states (Viet Nam) to exploit the preferential market access to the USA. Also, the large population (and increasingly large economy) states of China and India were not included.

The earlier TPP certainly had implications well beyond economic concerns. One Japanese newspaper held that joining the TPP was ‘essential to counter the expanding China’. The strategic consequences of the US withdrawal are therefore a serious matter.

Comparing the TPP and the RCEP, the latter is well grounded in Asian region building, and also appears likely to bring solid practical results. There is overlap in the objectives of the two schemes, but—in ASEAN style—the RCEP stresses flexibility regarding the timetable for change. There is also less emphasis on formal monitoring of economic reforms in the RCEP and a greater acceptance of the business-led economic regionalism operating in Asia. Does this mean that the RCEP is simply an agreement containing little substance? New Zealand analyst Prof. Gary Hawke has argued that the RCEP ‘starts with a better understanding of international production networks in Asia’ and would be ‘less constrained by conventional thinking about the standard chapters of an FTA’ (free trade agreement).

China-centred Architecture

In considering economic institutions, and regional architecture more generally, a further and critical development has been the enhanced role of China. This is evident, for instance, in the development of a Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk Road for the 21st century—the Belt and Road Initiative—and in the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The emphasis in these measures is on economic co-operation with a wide range of countries (not only in East Asia) and China promises to contribute massive investments. The AIIB, according to one senior Chinese official, ‘will provide financial support for regional infrastructure connectivity’ and ‘will complement and grow in coordination with the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions’. The response to these Chinese initiatives has, in many ways, been positive in South-East Asia. In the view of Malaysia’s Sultan of Perak, the Belt and Road Initiative is the ‘largest infrastructure project launched by a single country in history’. Nevertheless, in negotiations over specific Chinese projects, ASEAN governments are in some cases taking a strong stand. Malaysia, following a change of government in May 2018, has been demanding a revision of contracts for Chinese projects—in particular, seeking reconsideration of interest levels.

The USA campaigned against the AIIB but, as it turned out, even Australia and the UK agreed to become founding members. One additional, striking move from China actually took place in APEC in November 2014, when China put the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) back on the agenda. The FTAAP was originally proposed by Singapore in 2006, with strong US support. The elevation of the FTAAP in APEC’s agenda meant the focus shifted from a competition between the TPP and the RCEP to finding ways of making both regional agreements pathways to the broader FTAAP. India, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are not members of APEC, but as members of the RCEP their inclusion will have to be finessed. China has continued to advocate the FTAAP since 2014, but there is no final agreement in sight.

The competitive climate in which this and other architectural proposals are made was indicated by a comment from US President Barack Obama in April 2015: ‘If we don’t write the rules,’ he said, ‘China will write the rules out in that region.’ The change to the Trump Administration—with its ‘America First’, anti-globalization (and in many ways chaotic) agenda—has put sharper focus on China as a regional leader, including in the building of regional architecture. Some recent analysis suggests that Japan—in the context of Trump’s positioning—may now be far more willing to participate in China-led institutions. Despite its various tensions with China, India became a member of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017—now an eight-member state with very wide geographic reach.

There is a possible challenge to ASEAN in this Chinese regionalism, as well as to US leadership. In October 2015 the Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, in speaking of regional institutions, highlighted the China-led SCO and the Xiangshan Forum, and only then, almost as an afterthought, mentioned the ‘ASEAN-led multilateral security dialogues’. There is also the Boao Forum for Asia (which began in 2001, and has similarities with the World Economic Forum), the Chinese Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA)(promoted originally by Kazakhstan and attracting a wide range of participants, including from South-East Asia) and a Beijing-centred web of bilateral strategic partnerships and comprehensive strategic partnerships. At the 2014 CICA, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of the need for Asian problems to be ‘solved by Asians themselves’. In April 2018 he told the Boao Forum that in the Belt and Road Initiative China was seeking only ‘shared growth through discussion and collaboration’.

How this China-centred architecture will be positioned with respect to the range of ASEAN-centred regional institutions is a matter for careful consideration, especially given the presence of numerous ASEAN participants at the Chinese meetings. Also, although ASEAN has actually promoted interaction between China, Japan and South Korea, the reduction of tension between these countries and the possible building of a specifically ‘North-East Asian’ community would have obvious implications for ASEAN-led, ‘Asia’ regionalism. A first North-East Asian Trilateral Summit took place in 2008, and from 2011 there has even been a permanent secretariat, the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS). Apart from summits, there are foreign ministers’ meetings and also annual international forums. The TCS at present appears to have close working relations with ASEAN.


Reviewing recent developments—the continuing consolidation of ASEAN + 3 and the EAS; the development of the security process, the ADMM-Plus; and the free trade initiatives of the RCEP and the FTAAP—there would seem to be a clear trend towards Asian rather than the more inclusive Asia-Pacific regionalism—but there is also growing interest in an Indo-Pacific regional vision. APEC has certainly lost momentum, and the TPP has been reformulated, but without the USA—which had been expected to be pivotal to the scheme. From a functionalist perspective, institution building in both the Asian and Asia-Pacific traditions is moving slowly. By EU standards (even with the EU’s current crises), Asia is characterized by competing, overlapping and poorly funded institutions, and this is in part a consequence of the fact that the region itself continues to undergo huge economic and geopolitical transition. Looking to the future—and taking both identity and functionalist perspectives into account—the patient region building of the ASEAN leadership, focusing first on South-East Asia, then East Asia, and then more broadly again, may continue to pay dividends. It remains to be seen, however, how this ASEAN regionalism will be affected; first, by growing intra-Asian tensions, especially—but not only—in the East China and South China Seas; and second, by new claims to a regional leadership role by China. Both ASEAN diplomacy and ASEAN unity are likely to be severely tested, as is US resolve. At the 2014 APEC Summit President Obama called his country a ‘thoroughly Pacific nation’, but China’s leadership has put forth the view that ‘there is nothing wrong in saying that Asia is Asians’ Asia’. The inconsistent, unpredictable behaviour of the US Government under Donald Trump—with its alliance-threatening, mercantilist tendencies—needs to be taken into account in any assessment of the prospects of regionalism in the broad Asian region. In the medium-to-long term both Asia-Pacific and ASEAN-led regionalism may suffer—as the prospects for China-based regionalism look positive. 

Note: With thanks for assistance to Shiro Armstrong, Astanah Abdul Aziz, Alice Ba, Mark Beeson, Nick Bisley, Nicholas Farrelly, Azirah Hashim, Jukhee Hong, Brian Job, Khor Yu Leng, Avery Poole, John Ravenhill, Chris Roberts, Tan See Seng and Bill Tow.


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