Rethinking East Asian Community Building

China International Studies | 作者: Song Junying & Yu Shaohua | 时间: 2014-06-17 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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by Song Junying & Yu Shaohua


East Asia is the most dynamic region in global economy and it is also a region with interwoven contradictions and growing potential conflicts. East Asian cooperation serves as an important channel of boosting regional economy and curbing political and security confrontation. The East Asian Community, once defined as the long-term goal of East Asian cooperation, should remain to play a guiding role.


I. East Asian Cooperation at a New Crossroads


In recent years, the US declared a high-profile “return” to Asia, Japan accelerated its right-wing shift, and East Asian countries intensified their disputes over islands and maritime rights and interests. All of these led to mounting difficulties and development bottleneck in East Asian cooperation.


1. Heated debates on pathways

Disagreement on pathways of East Asian economic cooperation has been around for a long time. In 2006, Japan proposed the “ASEAN+6”-based Comprehensive Economic Partnership for East ASIA (CEPEA), a rival of “ASEAN+3”-based East Asian Free Trade Area (EAFTA) led by China. This initiative was interpreted as Japan’s intention to struggle with China for regional leadership. However, these two initiatives share the same ultimate goal of building an East Asian Community. After the US joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation, Viet Nam and Malaysia quickly followed suit in 2009 and so did Japan in 2011.

The above events severely challenged “ASEAN+3”-based East Asian cooperation. Therefore, ASEAN shifted its attention to promote the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) , while China, Japan and South Korea launched their FTA negation by the end of 2012. Behind those booming FTA negotiations, competition among negotiation mechanisms kept increasing. Some countries adopted a wait-and-see attitude to get the highest bid, hindering the regional cooperation development. The conventional wisdom is that the TPP might conclude ahead of the RCEP and China-Japan-South Korea (CJK) FTA. Once this estimation comes true, relevant countries would focus more on the TPP and contribute less to the negotiations of the RCEP or CJK FTA.


2. Retrogression of regional security cooperation

In the “returning to Asia” strategy, the US took military force as the spearhead. It strengthened security cooperation with traditional allies including Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, lobbied prospective coalition partners like Singapore, Viet Nam and Indonesia. Meanwhile, the US adjusted its military deployment in the Asia-Pacific region, increased military presence around South China Sea and proposed the concept of “Air-Sea Battle” that is directed against China. Against this background, some East Asian countries enhanced actual control over disputed islands and reefs, resulting in intensified regional disputes and the emergence of naval and air arms race. At the same time, Japan’s right-wing shift took pace and “historical revisionism” went popular more than ever, constituting great risks to regional peace and stability.

In spite of the progress in non-traditional security cooperation East Asia has achieved under the frameworks of the ARF and “ASEAN+3”, the US’ “returning to Asia” is now reshuffling the region. This strategy is changing the nature of Asian international relations from “economy overweighing strategy” to “strategy overweighing economy”, as a result, strategic competition was introduced into the Asia-Pacific region. Along with the increased strategic competition among major powers, traditional security issues like territorial disputes escalated among regional countries. The countries in the region thus enhanced their defense forces by forming alliance or adopting balance-of-power strategy to preserve their national security. Consequently, the mutual trust among countries kept decreasing and regional cooperation on security became ever harder.


3. Weakening leadership in regional cooperation

Based on the EU’s experience, if China and Japan could be the axis just as France and Germany did in promoting Europe’s integration, East Asian cooperation would be advanced with firm leadership. For various reasons, however, regional cooperation has been steered by a weaker player—ASEAN. This cooperation model labeling “ASEAN Centrality” did cater to the needs of all members and facilitated the process to some extent. Nevertheless, as cooperation goes deeper and challenges multiply, ASEAN’s inability in setting cooperation topics and agendas and providing regional public goods began to emerge. Feeling uncomfortable with China’s rapid rise, Japan did not make self-adjustment, instead, it strengthened alliance with the US and lobbied other countries in the region to curb China’s rise and rebuild its own leadership in East Asia.

What’s more, the Diaoyu Islands dispute dragged bilateral relations to a historical low since the normalization of the bilateral ties and resulted in “cold politics and cool economy”. In view of this, it is unrealistic for China and Japan to jointly promote East Asian cooperation, while China’s unilateral efforts may also be opposed and baffled by Japan. As for Japan, it was active in promoting an East Asian Community before it joined the TPP negotiation in 2011. Since Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama stepped down, Japan slacked its efforts in building an East Asian Community. Even though Japan remains a participant of the RCEP negotiation, it is no long a major facilitator. On history issues, Japan turned back the wheel of history and wantonly deteriorates relations with China and South Korea.


4. The existing mechanisms must be integrated.

Complicated reality in East Asia gave birth to many mechanisms which to some extent complement each other and cater to the considerations and interests of all parties. On the other hand, these repeated mechanisms led to unnecessary competition and low efficiency. Take economic cooperation as an example, FTAs of all descriptions sprung up in East Asia in recent years. Serving as makeshift for the unaccomplished multilateral trade arrangement in WTO, these FTAs would lead to “Spaghetti Bowl” effect and severely reduce efficiency. With the development of the multiple “ASEAN+1”, “ASEAN+3”, RCEP and CJK cooperation mechanisms, they need to be simplified and integrated to raise efficiency.

In the political and security field, East Asia has established mechanisms like East Asian Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting. These mechanisms may play their unique roles, but will contribute nothing to ease vicious competition and reduce operation costs. The participation by big powers outside the region such as the US has turned some regional mechanisms into the platforms for great powers to scramble for influence and made it difficult for these mechanisms to coordinate regional cooperation.

The new situation in East Asian cooperation calls for new cooperation concepts to guide regional economies out of difficulties. At a time of inadequate political trust, intensified competition among major powers and weakening ASEAN leadership, putting forward a brand-new cooperation concept or initiative is prone to disputes and skepticism. Given this, despite being ignored, the East Asian Community which once guided regional cooperation remains the most practical choice.


II. East Asian Community Not Yet in Full Bloom


Since the 1940s, some countries brought up the idea of establishing a regional cooperation organization. It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that East Asian Community was proposed and generally accepted by countries in the region.

After the outbreak of Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s, leaders from ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea held meeting in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia to launch the cooperative mechanism “ASEAN+3” at the end of 1997. The next year, leaders from “ASEAN+3” decided to establish East Asian Vision Group (EAVG) to further plan the future for East Asian regional cooperation. In 2001, EAVG submitted a report to the Fifth ASEAN+3 Summit, suggesting that realizing the East Asian Community be the long-term goal of East Asian cooperation. In 2002, EAVG submitted another report on building “East Asian Community” and the report was adopted by the Sixth ASEAN+3 Summit. In 2004 in the Eighth ASEAN+3 Summit, the East Asian Community was officially announced as the long term goal of East Asian cooperation. In 2005, two Kuala Lumpur Declarations were adopted respectively at the Eighth ASEAN+3 Summit and the First East Asian Summit (EAS). These two declarations reaffirmed “East Asian Community building as the long-term goal of East Asian cooperation” and agreed that “ASEAN Plus Three process will continue to be the main vehicle.”

In 2009, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama strongly advocated the building of an East Asian community and received positive response from China and South Korea. In the Second China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit in October 2009, three countries remained committed to “the development of an East Asian community based on the principles of openness, transparency, inclu-siveness as a long term goal.” In 2012, the East Asian Vision Group (EAVG) II submitted a report proposing to establish an East Asian Community by 2020 which was agreed on ASEAN Summit of the same year. Based on the above development process, the East Asian Community as the long term goal of East Asian cooperation was confirmed repeatedly on the ASEAN-related summits since being put forward in EAVG report. The idea of East Asian Community has been widely acknowledged by major East Asian countries and accepted by regional economies.

Since the proposal of an East Asian Community, great progress has been achieved in East Asian cooperation. Guided by the idea of East Asian Community, East Asia adopted a comprehensive, multi-level and wide-ranging cooperation pattern that conforms to its diversity and differences. In this pattern, mechanisms of all descriptions forge ahead and complement each other in competition.

(1) ASEAN Community progressed steadily and is scheduled to conclude by 2015. The ASEAN Community comprises three pillars, the Economic Community, Political-Security Community and Socio-Cultural Community.

(2) ASEAN-led mechanisms including “ASEAN+1”, “ASEAN+3”, the RCEP and East Asian Summit have conducted pragmatic cooperation and have been more institutionalized. Among all the FTA partnerships ASEAN has established with every country in the region, China-ASEAN relations attract wide spotlight. China is among the first to launch strategic dialogue with ASEAN, enter the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and sign FTA with ASEAN.

China-ASEAN relations have gone through a “Golden Decade” and are now heading to the “Diamond Decade”. The “ASEAN+3”, with its solid foundation, has accomplished remarkable progress in FTA building, finance, environment protection and non-traditional security. As the US is attempting to lead Asia-Pacific cooperation by promoting the TPP, ASEAN shifted its focus to “ASEAN+6”-based RCEP. This, however, does not mean that ASEAN would give up “ASEAN+3” as the main vehicle. In other words, ASEAN overlays “ASEAN+3” with “ASEAN+6” and results achieved by “ASEAN+3” will be consolidated. Having developed from “ASEAN+6” to “ASEAN+8”, the East Asian Summit plays an important role as a leaders’ summit in coordinating relations between East Asian countries and outside powers.

(3) Considerable progress in China-Japan-South Korea coopera-tion. Since 2008, China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Meeting was held separately from ASEAN-related meetings. The three countries have established 18 ministerial meeting and more than 50 working-level meetings. In 2010, Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) was established. In 2012, trilateral FTA negotiation was launched and was estimated to conclude by the end of 2014.

More importantly, the above cooperation increased countries’ willingness for cooperation as well as their sense of collective identity. Regionalization and globalization are two trends that complement and reinforce each other. Regionalization is booming in the process of globalization. Progress made in the EU and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) dwarfed the East Asian cooperation. The East Asian countries were catching up fast since the Asia Financial Crisis. Through more than ten years of practice, countries in the region have reached consensus to a large extent that cooperation and institutionalization is an irreversible trend of the time and a win-win deal that caters to the interests of all parties. The vast majority of countries in East Asia are the participants and beneficiaries of regional cooperation. Despite the difference in pathways and participation methods, countries all agreed on the necessity of cooperation. As cooperation deepens and widens, countries in the region are increasing their awareness of the community.

Information revolution has resulted in a “flat world” and East Asia is no exception. Cooperation in humanities, society and non-traditional security has contributed a lot to increasing people’s awareness of the community. Apart from the governmental exchanges, exchanges between non-governmental organizations and the public also helped to create the prototype of “Civil Society in East Asia”, a huge benefit to regional stability.

It is undeniable that the fruitful East Asian Community building also faces many challenges as follows:

(1) Low degree of cultural identification of an East Asian Community and weak basis of common values are to be reshaped and improved. With different political systems and social governance patterns, East Asian countries do not share many values. In recent years, East Asian countries are more willing to cooperate and more aware of their collective identity. However, due to their huge differences in religion and culture, they are unable to achieve such high level cultural identity like the EU. Even though Northeast countries were part of the “Chinese Cultural Sphere” and Southeast countries emphasize “East Asian Values”, they still haven’t reached agreement on how to integrate “indigenous” values with “universal” values in globalization. This somehow baffled mutual understanding and mutual trust.

(2) Cold War legacy lasts long in East Asia while economic issues deviate from security issues. East Asia is a region where historic issues and present issues concentrate and a region where interests of great powers intersect. The split structure of East Asia resulted by the Cold War has not been wiped out by economic cooperation.

On the contrary, Cold War legacy and animus remain. The US Alliance System still serves as the main component of regional security structure and is now strengthening. This system has resulted in the deviation of security structure and economic structure in East Asia in which economic cooperation is often bottlenecked by security. Meanwhile, even though cooperation in non-traditional security has been put on agenda, cooperation in traditional areas lags behind. For instance North Korean nuclear issue, Japan’s invasion history and territorial and maritime disputes aggravates from time to time, severely harming the mutual trust and people’s feelings.

(3) The “US factor” has become a major external variable in East Asian cooperation. The core objective of the US’ East Asia policy is to curb the rise of regional powers, prevent exclusive regional cooperation and maintain the US’ predominance in East Asian affairs. The US has always held vigilance and opposition against East Asian cooperation. Its opposition to some extent obstructed the realization of “East Asian Economic Group” advocated by Mahathir, Asian Monetary Fund proposed by Japan and the East Asian Community promoted by Hatoyama. Now that the US-led TPP has already hit East Asian cooperation, if it made progress as scheduled, then it would in a way dismantle the East Asian Community.

Under the joint action of above challenges since 2010, “East Asian Community” went downhill both in momentum and actual influence. Shortly after Hatoyama stepped down, Japan-US alliance was further enhanced, Japan-China relations were worsened by “collision incident” and “nationalization of the Diaoyu Islands”, Japan-South Korea and Japan-China relations were deteriorated by Japan’s provocation on history. The East Asian Community seems to have become dead letters. In official statement or media report alike, the term “East Asian Community” appeared far less frequently, thus leading to increased skepticism and pessimism. This is particularly evident after Hatoyama’s dimission when skepticism on an East Asian Community soared in Japan and advocacy of a stronger US-Japan alliance and accession to the TPP became the political mainstream. Some Chinese scholars even claimed that “East Asian Community” is too idealized and no longer feasible.

The East Asian Community has only undergone a dozen of years since its birth and would naturally meet setbacks. Even the well-rounded Europe spent half a century accomplishing integration, and even now Europe is facing the risks of debt crisis-induced Euro breakup, let alone the East Asian Community that started up late with a weaker foundation. A declining momentum of the East Asian Community does not mean the end of its life.

Despite the great changes in the region, the trend of the time remains to be peace, development, cooperation and win-win results. With an East Asian Community as its long term goal, East Asian cooperation still serves the common interests of all countries. In terms of economic rationality, the East Asian Community will cover the common market of Southeast and Northeast Asian countries, promote the rational allocation of people, capital, commodities, service, information and other factors of production and industrial division. It will further consolidate East Asia’s status as the world’s economic engine and improving economic welfare of all countries. What is more, the East Asian Community can also play a leading role to reduce lower efficiency and vicious competition brought by overlapping cooperation mechanisms and avoid the deterioration of hotspot issues. Therefore, if implemented in a philosophy and pathway that caters to regional reality, the East Asian Community remains to facilitate regional prosperity and stability.


III. New Pathway of Building an East Asian Community


Building an East Asian Community requires a unity of idea and action. After the top-level design, countries need to explore through practices and figure out a feasible pathway. Countries have agreed on the pathway that “takes ASEAN+3 as the main vehicle” and will “complete East Asian Community by 2020”. Their consensus, however, will no longer meet the needs of the present times. Therefore, this paper adds the following from China’s perspective:


1. The pathway of “one axis, two wings” (3+(ASEAN+3)+3)

“One axis with two wings” refers to the mechanism where “ASEAN+3” acts as the axis and India, Australia and New Zealand acts as one wing, Russia (Far East), Mongolia and North Korea as the other. Geographically, the East Asian Community is supposed to connect the Southeast Asian Community with the Northeast Asian Community. Practically, the Southeast Asian Community is the ASEAN Community that ASEAN planned to build up by 2015 and enjoys higher degree of institutionalization and development. India, Australia and New Zealand, with their early entry to “ASEAN+6”, have been target participants of the East Asian Community.

Now that the three countries are RCEP members, they deserve to be regarded as one wing. Even though the Greater Tumen Initiative in the 1990s and the Six Party Talks launched in 2003 were expected to develop into regional cooperation mechanisms that include all Northeast countries, their performance are far from satisfactory.

As an important component of Northeast Asian cooperation, China-Japan-South Korea cooperation demonstrates an unparallel level of multilateral cooperation and is now moving towards FTA. No matter how region-wide cooperation will be achieved in Northeast Asia, whether it is by revitalizing the Greater Tumen Initiative, relaunching the Six Party Talks and adding topics, deepening CJK cooperation and then taking in Russia, Mongolia and North Korea, or by creating a new regional cooperation mechanism, the cooperation will inevitably include Russia, Mongolia and North Korea. As for the Northeast Asian sub-regional cooperation, the three countries have conducted pragmatic cooperation in energy, transportation, tourism and cross-border economic zones. Their willingness to participate actively in Northeast Asian economic cooperation presents a great opportunity to launch sub-regional cooperation.

On the one hand, by including all countries in the region, the mechanism of “one axis, two wings” demonstrates the representativeness and inclusiveness of the East Asian Community. On the other hand, with different emphasis on the “axis” and two “wings”, the mechanism also presents the flexibility and practicality in building the community.

2. Economic and security cooperation as drivers

The deviation of economy and security has resulted in a situation in East Asian cooperation where “economy goes ahead and security lags behind”, impacting the building of an East Asian Community. As economic cooperation develops, the hysteresis effect and bottleneck effect of less-developed security cooperation has become all the more evident. Being a part of the East Asian Community, security community and economic community ought to advance side by side and reinforce each other. To this end, countries need to follow the new security concept of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation”, to build “common, cooperative and comprehensive security”, consolidate and expand non-traditional security cooperation and launch cooperation in traditional security.

In East Asia, there are two multilateral platforms for security cooperation—ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus and the Six Party Talks. Joined by the US, the two platforms will no longer serve as the prototype of the East Asian Security Community. The security cooperation can be conducted step by step in China-ASEAN, China-Japan-South Korea and other mini-multilateral frameworks.


3. China’s bridging role

In theory, “ASEAN+3” is supposed to connect the Southeast Asian Community and the Northeast Asian Community. In practice, China’s advantage in geographical location, economic strength and strategic position enables it to play a bridging role. China traverses throughout East Asia from north to south with its south provinces adjacent to ASEAN countries in land and face them across the sea. China is now enhancing its ties with ASEAN countries through interconnection projects. In 2013, Chinese leaders proposed the idea of China-ASEAN Community of common destiny and China-ASEAN “2 +7 cooperation framework” which includes an upgrade version of China-ASEAN FTA, the 21st century Maritime Silk Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, demonstrating sincerity for win-win cooperation.

China-ASEAN relations are now at a new historical starting point. With China’s strong support for Northeast Asia cooperation, China-Japan-South Korea cooperation forged ahead against the tensions in China-Japan and South Korea-Japan relations. Moreover, China has unmatched edges in attracting Russia, Mongolia and North Korea in regional cooperation. As China enhances its economic strength and carries out diplomatic deployment in the neighborhood, its ability in setting topics, agendas of regional affairs and providing public goods will increase and its advantages in playing a bridging role will also strengthen.


IV. Conclusion


Amongst multiple challenges and choices, the reinvigoration of the East Asian Community is of great importance to boost East Asia cooperation. The reinvigoration refers not to a repetition of original concept, but a reality-based pathway with new philosophy. Countries in the region should all participate on an equal basis, play a positive role, fixate proper positions and express their own voices. China, as a major regional power, should take its duty and contribute to the building of an East Asian Community.

Building an East Asian Community conforms to the trend of the times and caters to the common interests of all countries in the region. This, however, does not guarantee a smooth sailing. “East Asian Community” had gone through a lot of difficulties and will be meeting with arduous tasks. Therefore, countries in the region have to pull together for a bright future.


 Source: China International Studies March/April 2014 71-84