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Regionalism in Asia - by Anthony Milner


by Anthony Milner

This is an early version of an essay published as Anthony Milner, 'Regionalism in Asia', The Far East and Australasia 2017 (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 40-48

Functionalist and Identity Regionalism: Asia-Pacific and Asia

In Asia, regionalism—a development attracting growing international interest—is characterized by plurality and contest. The building of regional institutions in Asia 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’. The sharp tension between the People’s Republic of China and Japan is perhaps the most dangerous dynamic, but the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are also damaging relations between China and a number states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Asian region is in a phase of far-reaching transition: its complex and untidy regional architecture reflects a deeper strategic turmoil, and one encompassing issues of identity.

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 growing economic, educational and security interaction between Australia and numerous Asian countries, for instance, and yet Australia has been excluded from certain vital East-Asian regionalist initiatives.

For much of the 20th century Pacific or Asia-Pacific regionalism—in which the USA’s presence and power tend to be prominent—was influential. But it has always had to compete with more narrowly Asian (sometimes East-Asian or South-East Asian) forms of regionalism. There are indications at present that a new China-centred regionalism is taking shape.

Two broad approaches tend to be taken in building regions, and regional communities—and also in analysing such processes—and they often interact with one another. The first stresses functionalist or practical dimensions, emphasizing the advantages that can result from co-operation in economic, security and other areas. This approach recognizes the range of challenges that are transnational in character: everything from epidemics to terrorist networks to irregular movements of people. The second perspective on regionalism highlights identity issues – focusing on the way the region ought best be defined. Some analysts have written of `cognitive regionalism’, and pointed out that it is primarily concerned with socio-cultural issues; 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 by which regional identity is often shaped. Chairing ASEAN in 2015, Malaysia was certainly preoccupied with identity regionalism, declaring that a ‘people-centred ASEAN’ was the overarching theme of its year-long term.

Commentators on Asian region-building have tended to underestimate the importance of identity issues. As a result there has been a failure to appreciate the extent to which Asia-Pacific regionalism—the more inclusive regionalism—has been losing influence, and also why this has been taking place. 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, on its part, has the potential to provide a stronger foundation for functional collaborations.

Asia-Pacific Regionalism

Prominent in Asia-Pacific regionalism is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) process, which holds an annual leaders’ meeting for member ‘economies’ (as they are described – see below)—meetings where the leaders of these USA, China and many other Asia-Pacific `economies’ are often photographed wearing `heritage’ shirts from the host country.

From the perspective of identity regionalism, this and other Asia-Pacific initiatives have faced formidable challenges. 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 from that of the Institute of Pacific Relations, founded in 1925, with headquarters in Honolulu and then New York— a Pan-Pacific regionalism emerged. Conferences were held in China and Japan, as well as in Canada and the USA, and some 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 the co-operation of 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 included Australia, 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 was viewed 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 in 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 it was 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 became 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 the 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, and in all 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’.

At first, Hawke did not include the USA among member economies, but he implied later that this was part of a strategy for ensuring US participation. As it turned out, every country (with the exception of Malaysia) wanted the USA to join - which, given the priority of economic considerations, was hardly surprising. 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 to be gained from the new regional organization. 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 in geographic and cultural terms, providing little or no foundation for an identity-based approach to region-building. At the outset the participants in APEC were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, together with Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand from East Asia. In 1991 China, Hong Kong and Taiwan joined; then Papua New Guinea and Mexico in 1993, Chile in 1994, and Peru, Russia 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, in sharp contrast to the way the European Union was forged, and despite the focus on economic and other practical challenges, 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 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 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 East Asian community is far more problematic for Australia.

A further feature in APEC’s evolution has been a tension between the USA and many of the East-Asian members. The USA wanted to bring about the liberalizing of trade through the reduction of tariffs and of a range of other impediments; many East 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, proposed an East Asian Economic Group (EAEG)—eventually incorporated in APEC—which he grounded in an East-Asian rather than Pacific identity. Malaysia did what it could 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 saw the need to move more slowly in 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, it should also be noted, 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 East Asian financial crisis of 1997–98 which affected Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea most severely, but also had a damaging impact on Malaysia and many other regional economies. In response 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 missed an opportunity here to identify with East-Asian pain and sensitivity. The lack of effective action sharpened the impression of increasingly prioritizing Western, rather than Asian, interests.

Another area in which a Western agenda was perceived to have gained dominance was the APEC initiative in moving beyond economic issues. At the 1999 APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, for instance, 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 on life’. The organization, as former Australian leader Paul Keating saw it, had always had the potential to be a strategic body: `You have the heads of government of half the world economy and half the world population…the leaders of China, Indonesia and Japan sitting at the same table with the US President...It is, of its essence, a strategic body.’

Following the attacks on the USA by Islamist terrorists on 11 September 2001, counter-terrorism became a further non-economic theme in APEC. In 2001 there was a Leaders’ Statement on counter-terrorism, and in 2003 a Counter-Terrorism Task Force was established to identify and assess counter-terrorism needs and co-ordinate capacity-building and technical assistance programmes. APEC initiatives were also taken in such areas as events security planning, financial transactions, travel security and cyber-security.

As will be discussed below, in late 2014 APEC received a boost from a new Chinese initiative, but it is not clear whether this will ultimately be to the advantage of an Asia-Pacific rather than East-Asian agenda.

Beyond APEC

APEC, it must be said, 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 secutity 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 has been the way it has built on existing regional institutions, even when they themselves are grounded in an Asian rather than 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, 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 happy to play such a central role, noting the advantages of an inclusive security institution for the stability of the wider region. (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 Ishihara Shintaro 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 – and also as a challenge to Asian, especially ASEAN, projects. In Asian countries the fate of the Rudd scheme was in addition a reminder that the ‘Asia-Pacific’ idea had still accumulated little emotive substance.

Asian and East-Asian Regionalism

From the perspective of identity regionalism there were important initiatives toward building an `Asian’ consciousness by the opening 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 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 intra-regional 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 or East-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 AD, 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 alsocontrasted 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 the people in the 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’. In 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. On 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 élites of the region was evident in 1947 at the New Delhi `Asian Relations’ conference, when some South-East Asian leaders 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, Laos and Viet Nam), Indonesia, Malaya and Thailand, and 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.

In these years 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.

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. 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. The Association, today celebrating a 50-year anniversary, has been a relatively successful endeavour in region-building. It needs to be recalled that when ASEAN was founded, 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’.

Initiated with the 1967 Bangkok Declaration , 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 in the region. 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 it 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 economic development and the reduction of poverty would help resist communism. President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines reflected that co-operating with one another, ASEAN countries might remove the economic causes of popular revolt faster than they could through individual action. One key task was to attract foreign investment, and this in particular 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 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, the leading authority on these developments) outlined the norms that were to form the basis of ASEAN’s code of interstate behaviour’. These norms, which not only had obvious practical implications but have also continued to add 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, or consultation, a principle first introduced in the short-lived Maphilindo organization; and mufakat , 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 tended to be competitive with one another. In 1977 there was agreement on ASEAN Preferential Trading Arrangements (PTA), 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.

One achievement of ASEAN has been to expand beyond the original five members, and bring together, step by step, all the countries of South-East Asia. 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, but 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 experienced tense relations with Myanmar as well as with Viet Nam over a long period. The Indonesian Government was strongly anti-communist, and had 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, violating the ASEAN commitment to non-interference and peaceful problem-solving, made the situation even more difficult. ASEAN’s campaign against Vietnam, including within the UN, helped 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, and the ASEAN states in general began to place the objective of regional unity ahead of anti-communism. 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 then 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. Also, 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 much progress had been achieved - admitted that the community-building was by no means complete. There has been some success in lowering intra-regional tariffs, together with liberalizing initiatives to assist the services trade and investment flows - but it is also noted that the areas of agriculture and auto-production continue to be protected by member nations, and employment mobility remains heavily restricted. Furthermore, intra-regional trade in ASEAN is very low – certainly compared to the European Union. Commenting on the AEC, one private-sector leader, Munir Abdul Majid, has concluded “there is much work to be done”. With this in mind, it could be said that Malaysia as 2015 ASEAN Chair was prudent in focusing on a ‘post-2015 Vision for the ASEAN Community’.

How successful has ASEAN been more generally? Apart from comment on the slow implementation of its economic and security objectives, ASEAN has also been criticised for not taking effective action in the `haze’ crisis of 1997–98, in which smoke from forest fires in Indonesia and eastern Malaysia caused health and other problems across the region. The problem has continued, including in 2015. 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, 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. Although such diplomatic activism heartens ASEAN’s supporters, in 2014–15 there were numerous signs that it would be increasingly difficult to maintain ASEAN unity in the face of maritime disputes involving China, with some states, such as Viet Nam and the Philippines, taking a more oppositional stance toward China than others. In November 2015 the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) – in which ASEAN states are joined by China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Russia – failed to issue a joint declaration, again as a result of differences over the South China Sea. Further 2016 developments which have revealed division in ASEAN include a visit in April to Laos, Cambodia and Brunei by the Chinese Foreign Minister, who said these countries agreed that South China Sea disputes were not an ASEAN-China issue - and that the peace of the region could be maintained by China and ASEAN without the involvement of outside powers. Other ASEAN countries, it is clear, have certainly welcomed the presence of the United States and others. Differences within the organization were evident again in June, when a meeting in Kunming between China and all the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN ended in confusion. A communiqué from the meeting referred to the South China Sea as indeed being a damaging issue in ASEAN-China relations – a few hours later, however, the communiqué was withdrawn, The ASEAN 2016 Chair, Laos, was believed to have been pressured by China – yet withdrawal or not, the episode sent a message to China, and might be read as an instance of subtle diplomacy.

Careful ASEAN diplomacy has been especially important 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 2015 Myanmar 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. Former Malaysian premier, Mahathir Mohamad, even demanded Myanmar be expelled from ASEAN for its ‘merciless killing’ of Rohingya refugees.

The stress on national sovereignty within ASEAN is often identified as the stumbling block preventing closer practical co-operation, and the organization does highlight a commitment not to intervene in the internal affairs of any one member state. National sovereignty, however, is not is not a long-established institution in South-East Asia; in the case of a number of the countries it is still a work in progress.. The post-colonial nations are far different in structure from the old kingdoms and sultanates of the region, and owe much to the influence of by Western colonialism.. The pre-colonial kingdoms, 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 heritage, one might argue, that is an ideal basis for 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 Boards 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 it is also the case that 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 at times on an ASEAN basis; there are also developments in the arts and sport - such as the ASEAN Film Festival and the ASEAN University Sports Council - and increased air travel facilitated by budget airlines has certainly helped promote regional networking. From a negative perspective, however, the ASEAN organization has been accused of being focused 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 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. It was not mentioned in the Bangkok Declaration of 1967, but 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 in 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 official and working languages such as those that burden the EU. 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. These versions possess national or ethnic characteristics (such as local terminology and references) that ASEAN English does not display. In addition, ASEAN English possesses its own characteristic features, such as a general tendency towards syllable timing (where every syllable is given the same length). Such a tendency, together with the avoidance of local lexical items, can assist mutual understanding between ASEAN societies, and at the same time help promote a sense of regional unity.

ASEAN and Wider East-Asian and 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 East Asian and Asian regionalism, particularly over the last two decades, ASEAN has had some success. In government-level institution-building, it is not the most powerful states of Asia—China, Japan and India—that have been led, but the cluster of weaker states assembled in the ASEAN organization.

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 over the last decade, 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.

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 other—particularly since the assertive Shinzo Abe came to power in Japan in December 2012. Japan is increasingly supporting South-East Asian opposition to Chinese claims in the South China Sea, as well as confronting China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

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. Partly this is a matter of convenience—if not ASEAN, how would a decision be made between Japan and China? But it is also true that ASEAN has a 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 an East-Asian and not merely South-East Asian regionalism. 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. In the competition between East-Asian and Asia-Pacific regionalism that continues today, the advantage no longer seems to be with the Asia-Pacific initiatives.

ASEAN reached out to 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 the security organization involving ministers of foreign affairs, the ARF—emerging from the `Post-Ministerial’ structure—was a further development in ASEAN’s practical engagement with the wide range of countries having interests in the South-East and East-Asian region. 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 progressed slowly. Under ASEAN influence, the stress is on decision-making by consensus, and on keeping agreements non-binding in character. 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 and to spread norms intended to benefit inter-state 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.

In terms of identity regionalism, more important 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 East-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 stressing community over individual, placing order above personal freedom, respect for political leadership, 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 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 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 East Asian financial crisis offered further opportunity to puncture the confident `Asia’ rhetoric. In the view of one Western commentator, the crisis finally laid to rest ‘this 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 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 `East-Asian’ project—encouraging a virtual revival of Mahathir’s earlier EAEG initiative. An important step taken in 1996 was the creation of the inter-regional dialogue, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). A process dealing with socio-cultural as well as economic and political issues, ASEM’s most significant achievement has probably been in identity regionalism, bringing Asian nations together. The ASEAN countries, China, Japan and South Korea (India, Pakistan and others joined later)—needed to consult with one another before meetings, preparing for the European engagement. Also, the conceptualizing of the ASEM meeting in terms of the dichotomy `Europe/Asia’ helped to promote the quest for `Asian’ common ground, including some form of `civilizational’ unity. IWider East-Asian regionalism took concrete shape from November 1997, when the ASEAN countries began to hold annual meetings with their ASEM partners—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 (established at a meeting of ASEAN + 3 ministers of finance in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2000), 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 a China-ASEAN 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 a growing practical or functionalist substance. Today there are dozens of mechanisms (one leaders’ summit; numerous meetings of ministers, senior officials, directors-general and technical experts) 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’.

Further East Asian Initiatives: the East Asia Summit

An ASEAN-led initiative of potentially long-term importance—urged particularly by Indonesia and Japan—has been the East Asia Summit (EAS), an annual meeting for regional heads of government. It commenced in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, in 2005 with the ASEAN + 3 leaders meeting those of India, Australia and New Zealand (forming an ASEAN + 6). The USA and Russia joined in 2011 (now, ASEAN + 8). Among the topics that have been dealt with at the EAS are maritime security, environment and energy problems, global health, natural disasters and pandemic diseases. The heart of the EAS process is the Leaders’ Meeting, but a number of ministerial and senior officials’ meetings are held throughout the year to implement the different initiatives. The ASEAN 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 Asia-Pacific-wide membership, is expanding in practical substance. Also, in 2015 – under Malaysian leadership – steps were taken to strengthen its operations—with a better-planned Leaders’ Meeting, additional secretarial 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 ist an East-Asian, not an Asia-Pacific (or Asian), initiative; and the bulk of the region’s business is still handled in ASEAN + 3—the core East-Asian body, which also seeks to fulfil the identity aspirations of East-Asian regionalism. Just how far the US presence will change the EAS, giving it a stronger Asia-Pacific character, is not yet clear. China in particular is wary, and there is a significant element of competition between the two regional institutions, the EAS and ASEAN + 3. It is also uncertain what impact Japan’s increased regional activism will have on the balance between these institutions.

East-Asian processes are taking a further initiative in the specific area of defence. While the ARF is a meeting of ministers of foreign affairs, in 2006 another level of security co-operation was added with the creation of a regular ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM)—a meeting designed to promote `mutual trust and confidence through greater understanding of defence and security challenges as well as enhancement of transparency and openness’. Then, in 2010, an additional dimension was introduced with the incorporation of ministers of defence from ASEAN’s ten 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. The ministers only get together on a biennial basis, but there are numerous meetings of senior and mid-ranking officials, as well as experts’ working groups. 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. In 2016 the ASEAN Center of Military Meecine was launched. ASEAN calls the ADMM-Plus an `open and outward-looking’ initiative. Anchored in East-Asian rather than Asia-Pacific regionalism, it possesses strong potential, but one concern has been how it relates to other regional institutions—the ASEAN Regional Forum, 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’.

In competition with the RCEP, the USA has been advocating a plurilateral free trade project, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This has been 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 negotiating has been difficult, with issues relating to government procurement, the legal rights of multinational corporations and interests of specific, domestic economic sectors. Assuming that the US Congress and the legislatures of other countries eventually support the agreement, the TPP looks set to deliver a range of economic benefits. On the other hand, it is in important ways a divisive project. Only four members of ASEAN are involved (Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Viet Nam) - and there are already reports of some Chinese manufacturing (clothing and textiles) being shifted to TPP ASEAN states (Vietnam) to exploit the preferential market access to the US. Also, the large population (and increasingly large economy) states of China and India are not included. The agreement, it should be said, has implications that go well beyond economic concerns. In the words of one Japanese newspaper, ‘joining the TPP is essential to counter the expanding China’. The TPP is seen as crucial in the current US rebalancing or pivot toward Asia.

Assessment of these rival trade agreements is difficult at this stage. The RCEP is well grounded in East-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 academic and specialist on Western relations with the Asia-Pacific region 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).In considering economic institutions, and regional architecture more generally, a further and critical development over the last three years is 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 One Belt, One Road initiative—and in the launching 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 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 TPP and RCEP to finding ways of making both regional agreements parthways to the broader FTAAP. India, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are not members of APEC but as members of RCEP, their inclusion in RCEP will have to be finessed. In the APEC 2015 meeting Chinese President Xi again advocated the FTAAP in terms of its potential to provide unity at a time when regional fragmentation is feared.. The competitive climate in which this and other architectural proposals are made is 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 regionalist threat, of course, is to ASEAN as well as United States leadership – and it affects the security dimension as well. Thus, in October 2015 the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister – in speaking of regional institutions – highlighted the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Xiangshen Forum – and only then, almost as an afterthought, mentioned ‘ASEAN-led multilateral security dialogues’. China has in addition been establishing a Beijing-centred web of strategic partnerships and comprehensive strategic partnerships – which in their way, also raise questions about the continued capacity of ASEAN to retain the driver’s seat of Asian regionalism.


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 toward East-Asian rather than the more inclusive Asia-Pacific regionalism. APEC has certainly lost momentum, and the success of the TPP is by no means assured. From a functionalist perspective, it is true, institution-building in both the East-Asian and Asia-Pacific traditions is moving slowly. By EU standards—even with its current crises—Asia is characterized by messy regional architecture, with 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 unity are likely to be severely tested—as will 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 question that grows in importance is, ‘which Asians?’ The USA might yet have a role to play in formulating a response.

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


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Last Updated: 15/05/2019