Regionalism in the Asia Pacific/East Asia: A Frustrated Regionalism?
Nair, Deepak, Contemporary Southeast Asia
Regionalism has emerged as an influential paradigm in conceptualizing the politics of Asia, reflecting the profound implications of the end of the Cold War on both the structure and interpretation of international politics in an open-ended and evolving region. Indeed, the salience of regionalism in Asia--as an empirical dynamic and as a conceptual device n has been part of a much broader trend, whereby the region has been foregrounded in the analysis of international politics, has emerged as the locus for international economic activity, and for organizing security and resolving conflict. (1)
Regionalism in Asia has antecedents: most notably, the ASEAN process has reflected this at a sub-regional level since the 1960s. However, it was only by the turn of the 1990s that new multilateral initiatives on a broader Asian region took root, a process captured by the burgeoning literature on "new regionalism". (2) As much of this literature notes, Asia's region-building process has been driven not only by formal state-led initiatives--referred to as "regionalism"--but also by the more informal "bottom up" process of "regionalization", brought about by globalization and complex networks of trade and production. (3) Over the last two decades, the effervescence of grassroots regionalization has been fostered by, and has given rationales to, the institutions and frameworks of state-led regionalism, and these institutions are the primary focus of this study.
In how they developed, however, these institutions sprouted around different visions of the region. The conception of a broad and inclusive "Asia-Pacific" in the early 1990s gave way to a narrow conception of an exclusive "East Asian" region in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis--a conception that was however revised with the founding of the East Asia Summit (EAS). Thus, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) founded in 1989, the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) set up in 1997 and the EAS, held in 2005, represent three markers in the spectrum of Asia's recent experience with regionalism.
Remarkably, all three evolved in the space of less than two decades and have come to coexist as simultaneous and alternative conceptions of what the Asian region ought to be. Unsurprisingly, this has been an uneasy coexistence. Since the 1997-98 financial crisis, the momentum has been on the side of an exclusive of "East Asian" regionalism premised on the viability and normative preference for an Asia by and for "Asians", that is, to the exclusion of the United States and Pacific Asia. Riding on the success of financial and economic arrangements, the APT mechanism has rapidly emerged as an informal yet effective form of economic regionalism in East Asia, making it--in the eyes of some regional elites (4)--the best possible vehicle for the realization of a holistic regionalism: one that could address economic and security concerns, engender regional identities, and thus hold out the all important teleological promise of an East Asian community. It was to complete this project of regionalism that the APT was envisioned to "evolve" into a more holistic East Asian body with the founding of the EAS in 2005. In how it turned out, however, the East Asia Summit stands out as an oddity. As Dent observes, it is "neither a substitute for the APT nor a distinctly separate mechanism in its own right". (5)
The curious existence of the EAS serves as the entry point for this study. In disclosing the limits of both exclusive and inclusive regionalism, the creation of this latest regional framework provides the foundation for the argument advanced here that the regional project in Asia is, with reference to its announced goals and idealism, a frustrated endeavour. This article makes the following related arguments.
First, and building on insights from extant scholarship, it will be pointed out that regions are not natural, objective and ontologically given spaces, as often implied in the official discourse on regions--the "East Asia" underpinning the APT process being a case in point. Instead, regions are spatial and temporal constructs contingent on a variety of interests and agendas. The complexity in conceptualizing a region is matched by the challenge in organizing a region--as either an inclusive or an exclusive construct. Added to these are the goals of regionalism, which, in the context of Asia, can be identified as the formal and informal pursuit of a holistic and comprehensive regionalism, often embodied in the concept of a regional community. Noting these complexities, the article will briefly trace the journey of both Asia-Pacific and East Asian regionalism since the founding of APEC in 1989.
Second, it will be argued that the EAS has exposed the limits of pursuing exclusive regionalism, and the numerous factors that played their part in this unraveling will be fleshed out. This includes the excitement over the success of the APT process which ignored its limitations as a form of financial regionalism and led to the unrealistic expectation that it would neatly "evolve" into a more holistic East Asian body such as the EAS with economic and security rationales. Ultimately, the vision to transform the APT was thwarted, as economic and financial regionalism alone could not mitigate the profound anxieties and dilemmas rooted in realist conceptions of security in Asia. Indeed, the difficulties in addressing security issues and disputes have undercut efforts for deeper financial integration as well.
Apart from inadequately accounting for security politics, East Asian regionalism has been unable to sustain the contradictions arising from its exclusive "Asian" principle. This is reflected in its limited grasp of the existing structures of security in Asia where the United States and its deep bilateral security relationships with Asian states continue to play a profoundly important role, to the point of making any claims for a normative championing of an exclusive "Asian" principle quite untenable. Likewise, the APT's economic regionalism--moulded under the strains of the Asian financial crisis--are often presented as a regional alternative to the dominance of Western financial institutions and their neoliberal agendas. However, this perception underplays the continued dependence of East Asia's economic regionalism on actors beyond its defined region, and indeed on the broader international capitalist economy.
Third, if exclusive regionalism has been ineffectual in realizing the goals of regional elites, could a holistic regionalism in Asia spring from an inclusive process? It is here that the article makes the argument that an inclusive regionalism is equally limited and incapable of providing for a holistic regionalism. The cornerstone of the inclusive argument--that the United States is a prerequisite for the fruition of the regional project--will be challenged to establish how the preferences and interests of (an admittedly incomplete) hegemonic power constrain the project of building a regional community.
Fourth, the limits of both inclusive and exclusive models in Asia's decidedly rich experience of regionalism leads to the proposition of a "frustrated regionalism". This identifies a state where regional projects in Asia are unable to realize the stated end goals of the regional project that are articulated in state discourse: a holistic conception of regionalism embodied in the persistent calls for "peace, security, prosperity and progress" (6) and a regional community invested with shared identities and aspirations among people and governments. (7)
This frustrated state, it will be demonstrated, is an outcome of the interplay of both structural and agential factors. It is produced by the competing structures of an "Instrumental" and a "Normative-Contractual" (8) order building in Asia--expressed in the form of alliance politics and a normatively rich regionalism, respectively--which have pitted Realpolitik against the normative aspirations for a comprehensive regional community. The tension between these attempts at order building have encumbered the conflation of economic and security regionalism, and have weakened regional institutions, if not led to them being hijacked by the agendas of major powers. Crucially, the agents of regionalism, specifically government and policy elites, and their role in shaping the discourse and practice of regionalism, also accounts for this state of frustration. This is primarily on account of their role in articulating goals that espouse holism with the vision of a regional community. Not only has this vision been challenged by the enduring role of the state and nationalism in the international politics of Asia, but also by the conceptual ambiguities over what the putative community is or entails. Moreover, the construct of a "regional community" has been an instrument of a deeply state-led discourse that has sought to make regionalism relevant to the masses and yet circumscribes the realization of a non-elite community constituted of shared identities and interests. Regional communities can surely be imagined by elites, but to be meaningful and sustainable they would also have to be anchored in the domain of popular approval and participation.
Even though this study is a critical examination of regionalism in Asia, it does not reject the normative importance and utility of the regional project. Regional mechanisms can pursue useful goals. The role of the APT in mediating the influence of international finance is a case in point. (9) So is the success of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in socializing and building norms among state and defence elites. (10) However, there is a growing disjuncture between what the regional project claims to achieve and what it has accomplished so far. An awareness of the limits of regionalism, an eschewal of problematic visions, and a focus on pursuing well-defined functional objects would enable the regional project to develop into a credible process. If the intent really exists to move from elite to popular forms of community--which would thus link the future of regional security and economic cooperation with domestic consensus--then the emphasis ought to be on providing frameworks for heightened regionalization rather than pursue state-led regionalism alone. This perhaps may hold a greater possibility for engendering shared interests and amity, instead of improbable identities and visions.
Asia's Regions and Regionalisms
The multiplicity of conceptions of what an Asian region is and constitutes has to do with the fact that identifying a region is not as commonsensical as it may often seem. As Katzenstein points out, regions can be defined using any of these three theories: a materialist theory where geographical markers like land and sea set boundaries and also form the basis for conceptualizing power (classical geopolitics); an ideational theory where regions are social constructs created by political, economic and cultural interests; and by behavioural theories which emphasize the shaping of a region by human political and economic practices--the disappearance of the "Greater Caribbean" plantation region with the end of slavery being a classic example. (11)
As alluded to earlier, Asian regionalism has involved the persistent drawing and redrawing of its putative region along the lines of an "Asia-Pacific" or "East Asian" region. Ideational or critical theories are particularly insightful in understanding the conceptualization of regions in Asia even though--as Katzenstein argues--all three approaches offer insights. This then enables us to identify ideational and behavioural elements in the conception of an "Asia-Pacific" where trade and capitalism offer the basis for imagining coherence and interdependence. One can similarly detect a materialist strain in the conception of an East Asia comprised of geographically contiguous Southeast and Northeast Asian states, and which then excludes the US on account of its essentially non-territorial form of power in the region. Equally, there is an ideational basis to the claim of an East Asia premised on the construct of "Asianess", articulated in oppositional terms to a reified "Other". There is more texture added with the conception of an East Asia embodied by the EAS, where racial, political and cultural limits are stretched beyond the exclusive parameters that define the APT process. Concomitant to the drawing up of regions has been the quest for a reified identity, and in the context of Asian regionalism, this has been reflected in the goal of constructing a regional community, thus adding many more layers (and complications) to the process of regionalism. (12)
Besides negotiating with contested ideas of a region, the process of regionalism has to grapple with the dynamics that shape it as an inclusionary or …
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Publication information: Article title: Regionalism in the Asia Pacific/East Asia: A Frustrated Regionalism?. Contributors: Nair, Deepak - Author. Journal title: Contemporary Southeast Asia. Volume: 31. Issue: 1 Publication date: April 2009. Page number: 110+. © 1999 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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