Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

ASEAN Plus Three and the Rise of Reactionary Regionalism

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

ASEAN Plus Three and the Rise of Reactionary Regionalism

Article excerpt


It has become something of a cliche to observe that supposedly "global" processes are in fact marked by striking regional biases. While the economic and political manifestations of this phenomenon are most pronounced in the European Union (EU), greater integration and co-operation at a regional level has become a characteristic of contemporary transnational relations in the Americas and East Asia as well. In short, while we may be living in an era dominated by the idea of globalization, the reality is that global forces are powerfully mediated by regional factors with the consequence that "globalization" looks very different in various parts of the world.

This article is primarily concerned with the way in which the countries of East Asia have responded to this global-regional dialectic. Yet even to speak of "East Asia" is to make a number of initial assumptions about the validity of what is arguably an arbitrary geographical demarcation, and about the possible existence of a regional identity that is, in itself, contestable and uncertain. (1) For one of the most noteworthy characteristics of regionally based developments in East Asia is that--at the overtly political, intra-regional level, at least--such developments are of relatively recent origin and reflect evolving processes, the outcome of which is inherently uncertain. The intention of this article is initially to make some suggestions about how different regional experiences can be conceptualized and then to consider the factors that will determine the course of such developments in East Asia.

Consequently, the article is organized in the following way: first, I consider some of the more useful and important theoretical insights that have been generated in order to explain regional processes. Second, I briefly examine some of the distinctive and specific historical factors that have shaped political, economic and strategic developments in East Asia, as these provide both the bedrock for, and a potential constraint upon, contemporary regional initiatives. Finally, I look more closely at the evolving nature of regional processes in East Asia generally and at the ASEAN Plus Three initiative in particular. The central argument that I advance is that regional initiatives in East Asia have been driven and constrained by a complex array of contingent internal factors and powerful external influences in surprising and unpredictable ways. The influence of the United States has, I contend, been extremely important in this regard, and its direct and indirect interventions in East Asia look likely to continue defining the overall context within which East Asian regional processes unfold. As a consequence, East Asia has been characterized by a form of "reactionary regionalism", in which regional initiatives have frequently been both a response to external events and designed to mediate and moderate their impact.

East Asian Regionalization in Historical and Theoretical Perspective

The terms regionalism and regionalization are frequently used more or less interchangeably, but it is helpful to make a distinction between the two. Many analysts of regional processes distinguish between those processes that are the largely uncoordinated consequence of private sector-led economic integration--regionalization--on the one hand, and those processes of regionally based co-operation and co-ordination that are the self-consciously driven consequences of political activities--regionalism--on the other. (2) This is a useful distinction because it serves as an important point of comparison and explanation both within individual regions, and between regions in different parts of the world. As we shall see, "East Asia" has, until fairly recently at least, been marked primarily by a process of regionalization in which external economic forces have played a major role in encouraging integration. Regionalism, or formal political initiatives and agreements, has tended to follow in their wake--a quite different experience in some important ways from that of Europe. …

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