The Pursuit of an Ideal: Yongjin Zhang Addresses Fundamental Questions That Need to Be Answered in Developing an East Asian Community

Article excerpt

When the first East Asia Summit was held in Malaysia in December 2005, the streets of Kuala Lumpur were adorned with colourful banners with the words 'One Vision, One Identity, One Community'. With three summits--the 11th ASEAN Summit, the 9th ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit and the inaugural EAS--in town at the same time, this articulation of an ideal is beguilingly ambiguous as to whether it is for the ASEAN summit only or for all three. Critics and sceptics of the EAS as a new regional venture were blissfully oblivious to this ingenious ambiguity, as they were busy dismissing the EAS as a credible approach to a regional architecture for community-building.

One year on, and after the second EAS in Cebu, Philippines in January 2007, even those ambivalent about the EAS began to take it more seriously. The chairman's statement after the EAS in Cebu spelled out more clearly its future directions. There was a strong feeling that the time had come for the construction of an East Asian Community. The train (or bus) was leaving the station, as it were. It was moving towards realising the ideal articulated on the banners adorning the streets of Kuala Lumpur in 2005 on a much larger scale than many had anticipated.

How was the idea of East Asia as a region historically constructed? What are the stories of regional community construction in the systemic transformation of international relations? Why is an East Asian Community not simply an idea, but more importantly an ideal? What are the political and intellectual challenges confronting the regional pursuit of such an inspirational ideal? What are the implications for New Zealand? These are among the questions that I will discuss below.


Three more fundamental questions of an intellectual nature confront think-tanks and policy communities in the region in an uncompromising way. These are the questions of community, of common values, and of shared identity. Answers to these questions have significant implications for policy-making and institutional designs in our approach to the construction of an East Asian Community.

Distinctive region

The idea of East Asia as a distinctive region in world politics and the global economy is now very much taken for granted. The existence of East Asia as such a region in our consciousness and our analytical scheme is, however, relatively recent. To be sure, one could argue that, historically, there existed a broad area of Chinese (or Confucian) cultural influence beyond the Chinese borders and that the traditional tributary system presided over by Imperial China constituted a Chinese world order, which involved a considerable number of neighbouring states. Nevertheless, neither the Chinese nor those involved in the Chinese world order ever conceived their known world as a region, let alone that called East Asia.

It is that unabashedly Euro-centric term invented by the British, the Far East, now undoubtedly anachronistic, that first delineated geographically in a rather fuzzy fashion what we know as East Asia today. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902 not only legitimised Imperial Japan's great power status but also symbolised the beginning of a geo-strategic definition of the region. Combined with the declared 'open door' policy of the United States with regard to China at the beginning of the 20th century and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, great power rivalry and war began to shape the regional emergence of East Asia in its own fashion.

It is sometimes forgotten that the First World War, ferociously fought in Europe, also had a Far East dimension. It is the so-called Far Eastern question, unresolved at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, that led to the Nine Power Treaty signed at the Washington Conference in February 1922. The Washington Conference is important for our discussions here for two major reasons:

* it was an affirmation that the Far East had become the second most important region in world politics where great power rivalry and co-operation were played out. …