Regionalism in Asia: Why we should stick with existing structures

Author: Ezra Vogel, Harvard University

The past half century has been a period of largely fruitful regional cooperation in the East Asia region. Some believe that a new grouping of states would further facilitate regional cooperation. I disagree, and believe that existing forums offer the best opportunity for leaders in the Asia-Pacific to work together in solving regional and global problems.

An important key to successful regional organisation is making good use of what some of the individual countries have to contribute. The strong points of some of the leading countries that can promote the region are thus detailed below.

Japan has been the pioneer in bringing modernisation to Asia. Despite its relatively small size, Japan remains one of the three largest economies in the world, with one of the best-educated and healthiest populations. Its technology and quality of production set global standards, and its law-abiding citizenry facilitate one of the lowest crime rates in the world. As the only major country in the world that has chosen not to have nuclear weapons, Japan has the moral authority to take a leading position in the fight against nuclear proliferation. Finally, as the global leader in energy technology and environmental protection, it can make a major contribution in these areas.

China, driven by explosive economic growth and a massive population, has begun to play a central role in energising the region’s economy. Its think tanks and universities have developed extraordinarily quickly, and China is now producing large numbers of young people with a deep understanding of major issues affecting the Asia-Pacific region. Whilst China was initially concerned about the speed of modernisation within Asia, it has come to realise the benefits inherent in regionalism, and has begun to take a role in strengthening regional and global organisations. As China’s economy has grown, its leaders have also turned their focus onto international efforts to solve environmental problems such as global warming.

The United States remains the leader in higher education and research, and acts as a centre for educating talented people from around the globe. Additionally,  international institutions sometimes lack the capacity to respond to urgent crises. In this context, the United States remains the country with the greatest capacity to resolve security and environmental emergencies. The United States recognises the importance of the Asia-Pacific and can be expected to take an active role in the region.

The Southeast Asian countries that formed ASEAN have set the model for the ‘soft regionalism’ that is the glue binding together nations on both sides of the Pacific in a cooperative framework, most notably via APEC. It has unique convening power for bringing together the big powers of the region in a neutral setting. As the largest country in South-East Asia, Indonesia inevitably plays a central role in ASEAN.

South Korea and Australia both also have unique contributions to make. South Korea, along with Singapore, is the most cosmopolitan country in East Asia, and continues to send many students to countries throughout the world. Australia has played a special role, not only as the region’s key supplier of many raw materials, but also as the one sizeable Caucasian country that is in effect in Asia. No country outside South Korea has trained a higher percentage of its population in Japanese language and culture. No country outside Indonesia has done more to study Indonesia. Accordingly, Australia continues to play a key role in maintaining security within the Asia-Pacific.

The regional organisations in existence are already flexible enough to make good use of the capacities of the respective countries. But India and Russia should also be absorbed in these organisations. Together, these countries, through the regional associations, can address some of the critical issues facing the region.

I will just briefly mention two of the most difficult of these issues that require our attention: historical disputes, and military balance of power issues.

At the moment, issues as to Japanese interpretations of history are relatively submerged, as South Korea and China are making an effort to set aside this issue. This does not mean that the issue has been resolved. On the Japanese side, efforts must be made to engage in a thorough study of the tragedies caused by the occupation of Taiwan and Korea, and of the invasion of mainland China in World War II. Korea and China must also make an effort to communicate to their populations the fundamental changes that have occurred after World War II, as Japan has sought to maintain peace and avoid militarism.

The security balance in Asia is the single biggest issue confronting regionalism in the Asia-Pacific. In the past several decades, stability in Asia has rested upon two pillars; the overwhelming military power of the United States and the cooperation of other countries, most prominently South Korea and Japan. Now, the Chinese military is growing in strength, and it is no secret that the US has an imbalanced budget that will constrain military expenses in decades ahead. If we are to maintain peace and stability in the Asia Pacific, we must have a solid understanding between the United States and China.

It is in the interests of all countries in the region to deal with these issues, and regional organisations can make an important contribution.

Thus whilst we do not need another regional organisation for East Asia, it is vital that all concerned nations continue to cooperate using the existing organisations.

This essay is a digest of a presentation made to the Japan Institute of International Affairs Conference on the East Asian Community idea in Tokyo, on 17 March 2010.

Ezra Vogel is Henry Ford II Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard University.

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  • The author’s view clearly reflects more of the interests of the US in the region, as well as its role in the region of Asia Pacific.

    However, it remains to be seen if there are interests of Asian or East Asian countries that may go beyond those of the US interests.

    For example, they may have their intra Asian regional affairs that have little to do with the US.

    If those interests do not interest the US and the US has no desire or capacity to contribute to those intra Asian regional affairs, why shouldn’t be an Asian regional body be set up to look after their own interests?

    Understandably, there are common as well as diverging interests between Asia and the US.

    Why should the US have a say on such a body?

    Contrast to the view of the author, I see the need for both the current bodies and other regional bodies, with region properly defined.

  • Lee Jaehyon

    The title of this article “Regionalism in Asia: Why we should stick with existing structures” caught my eyes. Upon finishing reading this article, I felt like giving my comments on it.

    First of all, I do not understand what professor Vogel means by “regionalism” and “structures”. Does regionalism means regional cooperation, an effort for a community building in the region or the simple spread-out and geographical and strategic locations of individual states? Also, what means by structure? Characteristics of individual states in the region? What can we do with these individual characters of states in the region? Did he mean that with these characters of individual states in the region a regional cooperation would do well in the future?

    More problems follow. When professor Vogel describe those states in the region – Japan, China, the US, ASEAN, South Korea and Australia, he, intended or not, only mentioned positive sides of those countries. There are plenty of downsides of these states in the region that potentially undermine the effort of regional cooperation. See Japan. Its economic might somewhat lost steam although the size (say, GDP) is still quite big. Its population getting old puts more economic burden on Japan. In addition, Japan might not have a leadership in the region before the country recognizes its responsibility stemming from its militarism in the 1940s.
    China, of course big and strong in economic terms, cannot just ignore the suspicion by the neighbouring countries, particularly in regards to its military intention to rise as a hegemonic power in the region. Although the neighbouring countries are having good terms with China at the moment, we cannot safely say that they are perfectly persuaded by Chinese discourse – China wants to be a reliable and trustworthy friend. Moreover, let alone China’s domestic problems such as Xinjiang, many are in doubt if China can and is willing to provide regional public goods (such as security extended to neighbours) to the region which is one of the requirement for regional leader country. Less-than-democratic China and its human right issues will, in addition, haunt China when it emerges as regional power and as key player in the region.
    The US. Of course the US has strength in bilateral relationship with regional countries. And it also has formidable military and economic power. But the US has been away from East Asia far too long. Fortunately, current US President Obama emphasizes “reengagement with Asia” and “multilateralism” and attempt to return to East Asia. But, what is US version multilateralism? Asia seldom has heard the US talking about “multilateralism” in the region. Re-engagement? In what form? In Multilateral form? US engaging with Asia in multilateral way? It is not familiar with many of Asian countries and the population in the region might have some reservation on the US sincerity.
    ASEAN countries. It is laudable that the Southeast Asian countries, despite all the obstacles, have maintained regional cooperation in the past 4 decades. But that’s it. The lack of institutional building in the ASEAN regional cooperation (result of safeguarding national interests and nationalism covered by sound-good ‘principle of sovereignty’), internal gap, and some undemocratic countries among them are likely to be (or even have been) a major stumbling block for regional cooperation in East Asia.
    For South Korea and Australia, I do not want to mention about them. Professor Vogel’s evaluation (actually find some positive elements in them) of the countries is simply so awkward. Does Australia’s character of the only Caucasian countries in the region work as any merit for further development of regional cooperation in the region?

    It seems to me that Professor Vogel has a great hope in the advancement of regional cooperation in East Asia. So do I. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with professor Vogel as far as this article is concerned.