Soft Balancing, Hedging, and Institutional Darwinism: The Economic-Security Nexus and East Asian Regionalism

By Pempel, T. J. | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Soft Balancing, Hedging, and Institutional Darwinism: The Economic-Security Nexus and East Asian Regionalism


Pempel, T. J., Journal of East Asian Studies


East Asia has increased its formal institutional linkages in both the economic and security arenas. This article addresses three questions concerning this expansion. First, why has the number of institutions increased? Second, why is there so little overlap in the purposes and memberships of these many new bodies? Third, why have most regional institutions achieved such limited policy successes? The article demonstrates that the bulk of the new economic institutions represent collective responses to generalized pressures from globalized finance, whereas the new security bodies deal with regionally endogenous problems of a highly particularistic character. Furthermore, most regional bodies in East Asia still reflect the preeminence of individual state strategies rather than any collective predisposition toward multilateralism per se. East Asian regionalism thus represents a complex "ecosystem" of institutions whose future is likely to see the enhancement of some and the diminution of others through a process referred to here as "institutional Darwinism."

KEYWORDS: regionalism, East Asia, ASEAN+3, Chiang Mai Initiative, Six-Party Talks, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, economics, security, multilateralism

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The turn of the century has seen a substantial increase in the formal linkages among East Asian governments. Particularly prominent has been the creation of a number of multilateral regional bodies focused on economic cooperation, among the most prominent of which are the ASEAN+3, together with two of its major initiatives--the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) and the Asian Bond Market Initiative (ABMI)--and the Asian Bond Fund, a second bond market measure advanced by the region's various central banks. An explosion of preferential trade agreements (PTAs) has also added multiple connections among a variety of East Asian governments.

In addition to such economic bodies, new multilateral ties have been created in the security arena, most notably the Six-Party Talks dealing with denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization connecting China, Russia, and four central Asian republics on issues of energy cooperation and military security. Moreover, although they are hardly full-fledged "regional institutions" as the term is usually used, a number of regularized trilateral summits have been added to the East Asian mix of multilateralism, the most notable of which are the trilateral meetings among the ASEAN+3's "plus three," namely the Republic of Korea (ROK), China, and Japan.

This flurry of institutional construction across East Asia defies the predictions of realist international relations scholars who confidently asserted that the end of the Cold War would see East Asia revert to Hobbesian anarchy resulting in an outbreak of animosities, if not actual hostilities (e.g., Buzan and Siegel 1994; Friedberg 1993; Waltz 1993). Other realists suggested that these states might systematically balance against the United States as the new global hegemon or against China as the new rising threat to the status quo (Mearscheimer 2001). Asia is hardly short of national rivalries and confrontational rhetoric, but Asia's regionalizing moves have shown no signs of such hard balancing against either the United States or China. Rather they indicate far greater regionwide cooperation.

Yet, if pessimistic projections about rising animosities and hard balancing fail to capture East Asian realities, it would be equally mistaken to blindly embrace neoinstitutionalist arguments that such bodies in themselves automatically reduce national competition in favor of new mechanisms of coordination. Nor are constructivists fully correct in claims that these bodies represent a collective march toward a shared vision of an East Asian community, though a more compelling case has been made that ASEAN represents a minilateral security community (Acharya 2001). To date, these bodies show little concrete evidence of either overwhelming institutional prowess or regional comity. …

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