From conflict to collaboration: institution-building in East Asia.

Author:Narine, Shaun

There is so much written about China these days that we sometimes forger that there is a good deal more to East Asia than one massive country. Shaun Narine's article takes us through the fascinating and important story of the building of regional institutions in East Asia, centering on the birth in 1967 of ASEAN--the Association of Southeast Asian Nations--and its development over the past four decades. It is a story of Southeast Asian countries collaborating to promote security and increasing prosperity for their peoples while jealously guarding their sovereign independence. ASEAN has grown from the original five to a membership of ten countries, and has been the principal organization within which China, Japan and South Korea, are developing their relationships with the countries of Southeast Asia.

On entend tellement parler de la Chine ces temps-ci qu'on tend a oublier que l'Asie ne se compose pas uniquement de cet important pays. L'article de Shaun Narine relate l'importante et fascinante histoire de letablissement des institutions regionales de l'Asie orientale, tout en se concentrant sur la creation de l'Association des Nations de l'Asie du Sud-Est (ANASE) en 1967 et son evolution au cours des 40 dernieres annees. C'est l'histoire d'une collaboration entre les pays de l'Asie du Sud-Est pour promouvoir la securite et accroitre leur prosperite, tout en protegeant jalousement leur independance souveraine. L'ANASE, qui ne comptait a l'origine que cinq pays, en compte maintenant dix et represente la principale organisation par laquelle la Chine, le Japon et la Coree du Sud elargissent la portee de leurs relations avec les pays de l'Asie du Sud-Est.


Over the past forty years East Asia (1) has been fertile ground for the building of regional institutions in a process that has accelerated during the last decade. Today, the region is home to an alphabet-soup of inter-state political and economic arrangements, and appears to be pursuing ever greater levels of regional organization. What is driving these developments? How far may it go in the direction of greater integration of these countries? What are its implications for the structure of the global political economic and security systems? And finally, how should Canada respond to these developments in order to remain an active and meaningful player in the region?

Asia is an indispensable part of the world's economic and political power structure. The rise of China and India as economic powers and the strains they are placing on non-renewable resources are critical examples of the way in which Asia, by its sheer economic weight, is redefining the global order. China's influence on the world stage is being felt well beyond Asia, most notably in Africa and Latin America, and it like India and other so-called 'emerging powers' is acting to shape existing multilateral institutions to further its national goals. Asian states hold more than $3 trillion in foreign reserves (most of this in US dollars) and major Asian states hold more than $1 trillion of US debt. These realities are just a few of the indicators underlining the symbiotic relationship that has evolved between Asia and the rest of the world. In light of these developments, it is important to understand the shape and purposes of institutionalization in East Asia, a region where history continues to be shaped by a mish-mash of contradictory and complementary forces, all operating at once. Economic considerations push Asian countries toward regional integration even as other economic realities lead them to compete with each other economically and in other ways. Political and military rivalries argue against closer cooperation between Asian states even as these rival states benefit from stronger and deeper economic ties. The institutional development that has occurred in Asia over the past decade reflects the complex interplay of these competing forces.

The following discussion examines a few of the most important institutions in the East Asian region. Asia is of course much larger than East Asia, but it is really only in East Asia that institutionalization has progressed rapidly. The focus of the following discussion is on the ASEAN, which is the linchpin regional organization. Most of the other regional organizations are offshoots of ASEAN or are linked to its structure. The other institutions to be considered are the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), the East Asian Community (EAC), and the East Asian Summit (EAS), as well as one institution outside the ASEAN family, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC).

East Asian states are building closer relations among themselves and constructing regional institutions to facilitate those linkages. The process has at times seemed halting and uncertain, but has advanced considerably over the past 40 plus years and helped to create a stable, prosperous region. East Asia will not be forming the equivalent of a European Union at any time in the foreseeable future. Too much still divides the region. But a far more coherent East Asia--perhaps one capable of acting as a unified whole, under certain circumstances--is gradually taking shape in a region that has been wracked by conflicts. The Chinese civil war ended in 1949; the Korean War ran from 1950 to 1953; war in Vietnam, in its French and then American stages, continued from 1946 until 1975; Cambodia and Laos were destabilized by the Vietnam conflict, and Cambodia was the scene of genocide in the 1970s; Myanmar has been under dictatorial rule since 1962; Indonesia's political upheaval in the late 1960s resulted in at least 500,000 deaths. And insurgency was a problem in much of Southeast Asia during these years and remains a concern even today. It has been no small accomplishment that against this background of disputes and violence a far more coherent and peaceful East Asia has emerged.


Many observers of international politics assume that Asian institutionalism is heading - and is meant to head - towards the same end goals as the European Union. In tact, this is hot the case. Most Asians do hot aspire to create their own version of the EU, and even those who do see this as a goal so far in the future that it has no bearing on current events. Asian institutionalism is meant to strengthen the sovereign abilities and authority of Asian states, better enabling them to manage the forces of globalization and allowing them to hold on to their independence while advancing the economic well-being of their citizens. This Asian approach is rooted in the diversity and history of the region.

East Asia is home to hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, dozens of languages, three major religions (four, if India is included), many different political systems, and a considerable range of economic development. Dealing with internal diversity means that almost every Asian state is concerned with creating and solidifying the political, social and economic structures necessary to sustain itself as a viable state. Most of Asia is still deeply involved in state-building, a process successfully undertaken in most of Europe over centuries. If the European Community was created to "save" the nation-state in Europe, as Adam Milward argues, there was, at least, a pre-existing nation-state to save. This is hot the case in most of Asia. Asians have long had organized distinctive and complex political communities, but the geographical nation-state is a new phenomenon. Even among countries that are relatively ethnically homogeneous, uncertainty about the legitimacy and stability of the government creates concerns about the fragility of the existing nation-state. Asians form regional institutions if doing so will, ultimately, enhance their state's capacity. But they are reluctant to cede significant authority to such organizations.

East Asians' determination to maintain and protect their state sovereignty is rooted in, and reinforced by, their historical experience. Most of Asia was heavily influenced by the cultures of China and India, though direct domination by those great civilizations was relatively limited. European colonialism beginning in the 15th century, however, initiated a period during which East Asia was controlled and subjugated by external powers. This experience has imbued most Asian states with an acute sensitivity to their vulnerability in a world dominated by predatory powers. And this sensitivity extends to Asian powers. In the years leading up to and including World War II, much of North and Southeast Asia was controlled by imperial Japan. Cognizant of this history, they will not support organizations formed and dominated by the major regional powers. At the same time, Asia's institutional development is limited by suspicions and competition between these regional powers.

With all of the excitement about China, it is easy to forget that Japan is still the largest economy in Asia. Despite their extensive and mutually beneficial economic relations, Japan and China remain wary of each other. Most Asian states feel that Japan has failed to accept responsibility adequately for its conduct towards its neighbours during the first half of the 20th century. These feelings are especially acute in China. The nature of Japanese nationalism has made it difficult for any Japanese government to offer an unequivocal apology to its neighbours for Japanese imperialism. The unresolved historical issues between China and Japan fan the flames of intense nationalism on both sides. The experience of Japanese colonialism also continues to colour Japan's relations with the two Koreas. Most Southeast Asian states remain wary of Japanese power. Until Japan can resolve East Asian anger towards its historical behaviour, these countries will remain, in differing degrees, suspicious of its power. They may see a Japan free of the constraining effect of the US as a potential threat. But,...

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