Regionalism in the Asia Pacific/East Asia: A Frustrated Regionalism?

By Nair, Deepak | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2009 | Go to article overview

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. …

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