Towards an Asia-Pacific Community: Michael Powles Discusses Current Trends in Asia-Pacific Economic Integration and the Evolving Concept of 'Asia'

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There are so many regional economic or political arrangements, in place or proposed, in the Asia-Pacific region that they have been described as a regional noodle bowl. But despite some movement towards regional economic integration, that goal has not yet been achieved, and it may still be some distance away. There can be no enduring regional economic integration unless it and the vehicle, or architecture, devised to bring it about are built on a solid political foundation. The construction of this essential political foundation is today only in its early stages and is proceeding slowly. Hardly anything is clear or decided, not even what constitutes 'Asia' for this purpose.

The idea of a possible Asia or Asia-Pacific community, incorporating full or partial economic integration, is not at all new. The objective of region-wide trade liberalisation was behind the formation of the Asia Pacific Economic (APEC) forum in the early 1990s. And the idea was clearly articulated in 2001 by an East Asian Vision Group led by former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. (1) For many years, of course, Asian leaders have been conscious of the significant movement towards economic integration in the European region. But they will also have been conscious that, whereas there has been full reconciliation in Europe among the Second World War belligerents, the equivalent process has been much slower in Asia and, in some respects, can be said not to be complete yet.

Today, however, there is renewed talk of a possible East Asian community, thought by many to be an essential first step on any road towards economic integration. What will be needed, of course, is the political will to strike the deals and make the necessary concessions from which new regional arrangements can emerge. It is far from clear today whether political relationships in the region are yet such that this can happen. Indeed, while the leaders of East Asia's two major powers, China and Japan, are unable even to hold a bilateral meeting, it is most unlikely that there could be significant progress towards economic integration.

Politicians and diplomats, and even economists, tend, however, to be optimists. Many believe that the time is coming when the regional political will will exist in the region. For this reason, there is already much discussion of how economic integration could be brought about, what the process might be or, as some say, what the necessary regional architecture might look like. These things inevitably take much negotiation and time. There is logic in trying to move ahead now so that when the political foundation in the form of the necessary political will catches up, progress ahead could be rapid and it would be unnecessary to start from scratch.

Best vehicle

What seems then to be the best vehicle or the most promising institution to achieve Asia-Pacific economic integration? There are a number of candidates among existing and currently proposed regional organisations and forums. Some of the better known and indeed successful ones can be put to one side as not being appropriate.

First there is the Association of South East Asian Nations, which now has ten members, all geographically South-east Asian countries. It is not region-wide and therefore, while it has become one of the most influential organisations in the Asia-Pacific region, it cannot itself provide the architecture for region-wide economic integration. It is likely, though, to continue to be in the 'driver's seat' of moves towards closer Asia and Asia-Pacific region-wide co-operation and integration for the practical political reason that the alternative of having one of the major political powers of the region in the driving seat would almost certainly be unacceptable to other major political powers. (2)

Then there is the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), with a membership comprising China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, and several observers clearly anxious to join, including Pakistan and Iran. …