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How not to build an East Asian Community

Noriko Hama
9 December 2005

Is it to be deepening or enlargement? Is it economics or politics? Is it cohesion or variable geometry? Is it, in short, yet another article about the future of the European Union? No. Rest easy, reader. In this instance, it is about the schisms and tussles that are threatening to tear apart another regional association of nation-states – the East Asian Community – before it has even begun to take shape.

The first-ever East Asia Summit takes place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Wednesday 14 December 2005, at the end of the eleventh summit of the ten-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) from 12-14 December. This is the culmination of a process that began in December 1997, also in Kuala Lumpur, when the region’s north met its south in response to the financial crisis that was raging throughout east Asia. The south was represented by the (then nine) Asean states, while the north comprised the awkward trio of China, Japan and South Korea. Thus was born the framework for “Asean+3” summit meetings.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) was formed in August 1967. Its founder members were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Brunei joined in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Burma (Mynamar) and Laos in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.

Asean’s founding declaration commits the body to economic growth, social progress and cultural development; and to promote regional peace and stability through respect for justice and the rule of law and adherence to the principles of the United Nations charter.

The next step was the formation of an East Asian Vision Group which recommended the evolution of Asean+3 (“10+3”) into an east Asian summit arrangement. This led to the creation of a study group to consider possible substantive areas of cooperation. The group’s final report was presented to the 2002 Asean+3 summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Later meetings within the Asean+3 framework, official and unofficial, proceeded in stages to prepare the agenda and range of possible outcomes for the historic Kuala Lumpur summit.

It has to be said that Asean+3 has shown itself to be remarkably resilient over the years. The very fact that it is actually on the way to doing what it had said it would do – that the East Asia Summit will be held at all – is quite an achievement.

This is where it starts to get complicated.

For there is a stark difference between the East Asia Summit that was initially envisaged and the one that is about to be inaugurated. As a result of a decision made in May 2005, the Kuala Lumpur gathering will not be held under the rubric of the thirteen-nation formula of the Asean+3 arrangement so painstakingly constructed over the last eight years. Rather, it will take the form of a yet newer configuration: “10+3+3”. The ten Asean countries and the still uneasy combination of China, Japan and South Korea are now to be joined by three further states: Australia, India and New Zealand.

The agreement to invite the three new participants, making for a summit of sixteen states, was contentious. Not at all surprisingly, the Asean+3 members are not uniformly supportive of the idea. Not at all surprisingly, Japan and China are in opposite camps over the issue.

This is where it starts to get sinister.

China is in favour of a further deepening of the Asean+3 structure, which China sees as the foundation on which an eventual East Asian Community would be based. This Chinese view is strongly seconded by Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister and very much a founding father of the whole concept of an East Asian Community.

Japan stands in the other corner. It was the country’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi – in a speech in Singapore in January 2002, less than a year after his first election victory – who floated the idea of including Australia and New Zealand. From Koizumi’s perspective, creating a workable East Asian Community requires enlargement beyond the framework of Asean+3.

His view finds support in Indonesia. More predictably, it also finds support in the United States. In a thinly veiled message to China, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice made comments to the effect that the inclusion of such “democratic states” as Australia, New Zealand and India in the East Asia Summit would be a most welcome initiative. True to form, Junichiro Koizumi himself is much more forthright in his expression of the view that the US has an indispensable role to play in the construction of any East Asian Community. Despite this support, the United States itself is very definitely not invited to participate in the regional forum.

Noriko Hama is professor at Doshisha University Management School and research director at the economic research department in the Mitsubishi Research Institute in Tokyo.

Also by Noriko Hama in openDemocracy:

“Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan’s changing pains” (September 2005)

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The 10+3+3 initiative has been a source of division about the identity and future of this putative community. The supporters of deepening, led by China, want the Kuala Lumpur summit to avoid a joint declaration that makes any reference to the East Asian Community. As long as the new, sixteen-nation formation remains intact, they would rather relegate such summits to becoming a talking-shop between the Asean+3 and the wider grouping.

Meanwhile, enlargement advocates will not consider a joint declaration worth the paper it is written on unless the words East Asian Community explicitly appear in it. Indian delegates are reported to have said that they will only sign a declaration in which the phrase appears at least twice.

An unfinished story

South Korea has thus far kept a relatively low profile over this contentious question. Indeed, it chooses to withhold its judgment regarding a lot of east Asian regional issues. The proximity of its wayward relative to the north means that its caution merits sympathy. Yet even as it continues to sit on the fence, its posture looks to be increasingly tilting towards the Chinese. As the distance between China and South Korea appears to be closing while that between South Korea and Japan grows wider by the day, the initial “+3” triangle is looking less and less equilateral.

The proximate reasons include the series of political disputes that has divided Japan from its two north Asian neighbours over the past year: fuelled partly by the perception of a nationalist revival in Japan (involving routine visits to the Yasukuni shrine, the controversy over a school history textbook, and territorial rivalries – Takeshima/Tokdo, Senkaku/Diaoyutai – with energy-resource implications).

This foregrounding of politics has serious implications for the East Asia Summit process. The Asean+3 grouping emerged in response to the 1997 financial near-meltdown in the region. That is to say, it was an economics-driven arrangement. Now, on the eve of the East Asia Summit, what appears to be in the offing is a politics-driven framework.

This is a pity. An economics-driven process is by nature evolutionary, and by definition sustained by mutual economic gain. A politics-driven process is by nature contrived, and by definition becomes unsustainable where the parties involved seek mutually incompatible political gains.

Walter Hallstein, the first president of the European Commission, famously remarked that the business of the European Community is not business but politics. The pre-summit shenanigans in east Asia suggest a paraphrase: the politics of east Asia call for less political intrigue and more sound economics. What politicians must do is to manage the political consequences of greater economic integration.

The unfinished saga of the East Asian Community shows how quarrelsome these can be. Ill-conceived integration, political or economic, creates fertile soil for social intolerance to grow, as the Netherlands and France to their great cost have recently come to understand. So, reader, it is about the European Union after all. For on the eve of the first East Asia Summit, east Asia has much to learn from Europe about the do’s and dont’s of community building. Especially Japan. Especially about the dont’s.

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