The Future of Asian Regionalism

게시 날짜: 7월 9, 2010, 카테고리: International Political Economy

Regionalism is a movement which is widely believed to be the counterpart of globalization. In fact, it is a product of globalization itself and the most important aspect of it. According to Robert Gilpin, the movement toward economic regionalism or regional trade agreements accelerated in the mid-1980s. The European Union was the sole survivor of the earlier regional movement in 1950-60s, and it triggered the new regionalism by enacting Single Market Act in 1986. The multilateral American approach to the movement toward European integration changed, since it became clear that the Single Market Act could create a united and possibly closed West European market. The United States followed Canada’s lead and shifted its policy toward development of a regional arrangement of its own: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In Pacific Asia, largely in response to European and North American regional developments, many countries began to perceive the advantages of regional initiatives that would promote economies of scale for their industries and provide some counterbalance to other regionalization movements. The expanding movement toward regional integration can be characterized as a response to “security dilemma” in which each regional movement attempts to enhance its own bargaining position vis-à-vis other regions.[1]

Considering that Gilpin is a realist, it is quite natural that he conceives the phenomenon as a result of security dilemma. Though I do not agree with him 100% that the formation of regional economic cooperation can be understood in the similar sense of economic blocs in 1930s (I am not saying that he actually mentioned it), it is important to consider that driving factors in forming of the Asian regionalism. One cannot say that there are only purely cooperative motives in Asian regionalism; it was indeed triggered by other regional consolidations in Europe and North America. Especially in the region of Northeast Asia, the three major countries—China, Korea, and Japan (in a geographical order)—have always had difficulty in reaching a consensus in cooperating with one another. They kept attending the regional meetings such as ASEAN+3 (that three being China, Korea, and Japan) Summit in the past decade, but failed to agree on anything crucial in creating regional cooperation in a real sense.

ASEAN+3 is the major forum in the East Asian regionalism. ASEAN currently consists of 10 Southeast Asian countries and has its own regional agreements. Those countries with three major Northeast Asian countries are trying to create free regional trade agreements since 1998. The Korea Herald analyzes that there are three important factors in explaining the unprecedented pace of the development in East Asian regionalism. 1) The 1997-98 Asian economic crises pushed the states in the direction of closer cooperation. The East Asian countries shared a view that the crisis-hit countries were not supported enough by international and regional economic cooperation schemes like IMF and APEC. On top of that, the United States, whose political, security and economic interests in the region decreased significantly after the Cold War, was not much helpful to those countries. 2) The second factor was regional leadership. The region had visible leaders, such as Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Dae-Jung Kim of Korea, trusted by individual nations who provided the vision of regional cooperation. 3) Quick decision-making and implementation of the decision was possible because all decisions and practices of the cooperation was made and done at the level of governments. Consequently, a kind of regional identity or sense of connectivity was created among the elites in countries involved in the regional cooperation meetings.[2]

However as the author of the article also admits, there are underlying problems that blocks the way of cooperation in its true meaning. The major source of Asian regionalism comes from ASEAN countries. Unlike Northeast Asian countries that are unwilling to cooperate with each other, Southeast Asian countries have rather common historical backgrounds and means to reach consensus of their own. The problem is that they have their own governing order which can be summarized as consultation and consensus, and respect for national sovereignty and non-intervention in domestic affairs. These internal norms are believed to get in the way of institutionalization of regional cooperation among ASEAN countries, and since they are running the whole ASEAN+3 meetings, the same things are bound to happen there too. China and Japan are too busy in checking and balancing out each other, and they keep showing at ASEAN+3 conferences only because they both want to keep ASEAN countries as their allies. ASEANs are also reluctant to side with either one of them because they can earn various concessions derived from the conflict. In this mess, any real cooperation cannot be reached. (And well, to be honest, nobody really cares what we Koreans do.)

The article suggests that, in this situation, Korea can solve the problem and take up the initiative by forming a strategic alliance with ASEANs. It argues that China and Japan that do not want either one of which to be a leader in ASEAN+3, will support the Korea’s leading role in the Asian regionalism and ASEANs too will choose Korea rather than leaning on either one of the two largest economic figures of the region. But as fascinating as it sounds, I believe it is merely a wishful thinking. Actually, quite many arguments made by Korean scholars concerning the regional cooperation in East Asia assert that Korea must take the lead role because Korea can be an impartial hub—geographically advantaged, balancing the power, not too much hostility toward itself, etc.—like Switzerland in Europe.

However, they always forget (?) to mention that China and Japan, as much as they hate each other, do not trust Korea completely either. ‘Han-lyu’ may have released a tension a bit, but still they would not recognize Korea as their regional leader. Given the history of East Asia, it is quite understandable that they do not trust each other. The Asian countries are in a strategic alliance with each other only because other parts of the world are doing the same thing. There always will be checks and balances among Asian nations, and the cooperation to the extent of the EU simply cannot exist in East Asia at least in the near future. Maybe the whole need of Asian regionalism is too obscure to defend. There are definitely some positive effects in regional cooperation, but it is not worth fighting for, when we constantly have to look back over our shoulders. In conclusion, I do not think that Asian regionalism in its true meaning is possible or desperately needed.


[1] Robert Gilpin, [Global Political Economy] (Princeton University Press, 2001) p.342

[2] Regionalism in East Asia: ASEAN’s strategy and Korea’s stance (2009. 06.08. The Korea Herald)

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