Tuesday, 6 September 2011

ASEAN Centrality Under Pressure




The ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) in Phnom Penh, on 2 April 2012



Map of South China Sea

The possible negative impact on ASEAN centrality in the emerging regional architecture, East Asian Community, is inevitable with the recent development in ASEAN+3 framework.  The establishment of East Asian Community (EAC) looms large in the long-term future after the coming into effect of Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM) with total funding of 120 billion USD as announced by ASEAN Secretariat on 24 March 2010.  At least, the first step of monetary and financial integration in ASEAN+3 countries has been achieved through the entry into force of the CMIM. Then, the idea of common currency basket in East Asia, Asian Currency Unit, become a hot topic for discussion as the next move for economic integration in the future for East Asia by the private sector and the academia (Kawai, 2009, p. 74). In this context, with the new regionalism in place, it is certain that the new institutional dynamics and reforms will emerge and the existing norms and values may decline or might be adapted during the process of institution-building for EAC.  Then, ASEAN centrality is under pressure and reaches the crossroad whether it may be weakened with the recent dynamics or be strengthened during institutional discourse of EAC:


Key consideration is whether East Asian regionalism will strengthen or weaken ASEAN solidarity and cohesiveness. Whether ASEAN would be strengthened by an East Asian economic community will depend on whether ASEAN has realized its own economic integration before becoming part of the larger East Asian Community (Chia, 2003, p.77).

So, one question with two prongs arises with this issue.  How and why EAC may undermine ASEAN centrality?  In regional community building, according to Nabers (2003), institutional discourse, which consists of new identity and interests formed by institutional building of EAC, will indirectly affect ASEAN centrality.  When institutional building develops, economic integration also pushes political integration and security cooperation (Ballasa, 2003, p. 181). In security implication, it will undermine EAC itself due to rivalry between China and Japan in East Asia and the friction with current US security umbrella in the region (Japan and South Korea).  Since Japan is suspicious of China’s hidden plan in EAC for becoming a regional hegemon, it may give less priority for EAC and, in return, promote other proposals, which adopt even wider regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, to counter-balance with China.  In this context, EAC, in which ASEAN is at the center, may be less desirable.

In answering whether or not EAC may undermine ASEAN centrality, it depends on ASEAN itself whether ASEAN can have sufficient capability for leadership in EAC.  From this point of views, no political leadership has been found in ASEAN regarding EAC building for the time being.  Recently, no ASEAN member state has any new proposal or initiative on how to accelerate regional community building.  So, lack of initiatives from ASEAN side could be seen as its weakness in comparison to China, South Korea, and Japan, who have been very active in promoting new initiatives and proposals on EAC.  With this reason, it is no doubt that the in future, ASEAN centrality would be declining if it could not take political leadership and initiatives in East Asian regionalism. Therefore, in answering to the above question, the institutional discourse and security implication of EAC shall be analyzed on how it would undermine ASEAN centrality while ASEAN’s strength and its political leadership should be addressed if it is serious in maintaining its centrality in the future.  I shall elaborate the three factors (ASEAN’s strength, new institutional discourse, and security implication of EAC) as follows.

In institutional discourse, Nabers (2003, p. 133) argues that a fundamental reconstruction of existing values and identities in ASEAN+3 seems inevitable during the process of institutional building in which more innovative discourses are proposed and the existing structures is seen as an obstacle to crisis solution.  In his views, the evolving hegemonic discourse, ASEAN+3 process, which was created by 1997 Asian financial crisis, would offer alternative identity concepts for ASEAN, China, South Korea, and Japan, as one political group in the future. Today, economic interest has replaced Cold War concept such as containment of communism and ideological conflict.  Therefore, the new common identity and interest of EAC will exert pressure on ASEAN centrality such as its norms and values which serve as a magnet for decades to attract other countries in East Asia to support its leadership in regionalism.  In this context, the norms of non-interference and its balance-of-power strategy in the region is less effective since ASEAN+3 countries become more interdependent on each other economically and financially, especially through CMIM while, at the same time, trust and confidence is being built based upon common interest of the group, EAC. So, the suspicion of hegemony is waning among the member states and the balance of power approach is no longer use in regional affairs.  At the same time, new identity, interests, norms, and values will be created in institutional development of EAC and they may gradually replace ASEAN centrality in the future.

On security implication, when it comes to the issue of security cooperation in EAC, the existing security structure in the Asia Pacific with the US as the hub will be strongly affected and rivalry between Japan and China (as the regional powers) might be boiling.  Recently, the rise of China as a military and economic power has brought deep concern for the world, especially in East Asia, and many suspicions have been raised that China wishes to become a regional hegemon especially with the establishment of EAC without United States. The recent tension in the South China Sea is a good reflection of this friction between the two security structures even though the 44th AMM/PMC/ARF in Bali in July 2011 has tried to defuse the problem with the adoption of the long-awaited Guidelines for implemention of Code of Conducts in South China Sea.  Due to this reason, EAC may be less desirable since Japan and other countries may embrace new proposals on regional architechure.  Concerning the rise of China, Weatherbee (2005, p. 292-93) argues that based on its growing economic presence in Southeast Asia, China has multi-purpose diplomacy to supports its political advances in the region:

One goal appears to be to supplant the United States in giving the lead on important regional and global political issues. A second goal is to ensure that no regional security framework emerge that do not include China. A third goal is to carve out in Southeast Asia, just as Japan did a generation earlier, a secure economic hinterland (Weatherbee, 2005, p. 292).

In responding to this concern, the East Asian Community building seems to be dragged and complicated by Japan’s strategy as it invites more countries in the Asia Pacific, especially the US, to join this grouping, which have expanded from ASEAN+3 to ASEAN+6 process (East Asia Summit).  Therefore, Japan has chosen a “two-tire approach to regional community building”, through which the core group of EAC is still the APT countries, but in addition, Japan has pursued on a wider regional forum, EAS which also include India, Australia, and New Zealand, in order to offset China’s weight and to have more democratic values in the community-building process (Tanaka as cited by Mochizuki, 2007, p. 19). Furthermore, Mochizuki also asserts that, by the end of the 1990s, Japan’s policy had clearly shifted to a mixed approach of both engaging and balancing against China (p. 251).  So, Japan is still reluctant in East Asia regionalism without involvement of the US and other countries since it is concerning over entering into China’s camp and influence, especially in political and security cooperation.

For the rivalry between China and Japan in EAC, from the Japanese point of views, Noble (2008, p. 261), outlines two contrasting views “the skeptics on the right [pessimists] warns that efforts to move forward to a regional community building would not only fail, but also constrain Japanese sovereignty, weaken the US-Japan alliance, undermine universal values, and cede regional leadership to China.  Optimists on the left, while acutely aware of the barriers to cooperation, counter that …..regional cooperation holds out the only hope for ameliorating nationalist conflicts and moving toward a solution to the tension on the Korean peninsula.”  However, despite Asian nationalism, the optimist views that favor the habit of cooperation among states and people-to-people interaction in the civil societies among the member countries, which is the important building block of EAC, will release a new driving force that eventually overcome this kind of nationalism (Hernandez, 2008, p. 52).  Nevertheless, this process would require a long time to develop while economic progress occurs in EAC.

On ASEAN’s strength and political leadership in EAC, if ASEAN could not achieve its own economic integration, ASEAN Economic Community, by 2015, through a successful narrowing development gap between old members and the CLMV countries by that time, ASEAN’s attractiveness would be declining as it is considered by other countries, especially its dialogue partners, as an unsuccessful community.  So far, narrowing development gap in ASEAN is not successful as expected since the CLMV countries are still lagging behind the ASEAN-6. Furthermore, combining with its lack of initiatives and political leadership in East Asian regionalism, ASEAN centrality could not be sustained and new institutional dynamics in ASEAN+3 would replace it in the future.  So far, no ASEAN member state has offered any proposal on EAC except Malaysia under the leadership of former Prime Minister Mahathir which proposed an East Asian Economic Caucus in the early 1990s.  Furthermore, ASEAN’s bid to maintain its centrality in EAC building will not be secured due to lack of political leadership (Hernandez, 2008, p.44).  This is why EAC may undermine ASEAN centrality since China, Japan, and South Korea would finally compete for leadership in regional integration proposal and initiatives, and ASEAN would be just the follower.  In this context, Calder & Fukuyama (2008, p.263-264) argues that “political leadership has also been an important catalyst in determining patterns of regional integration, both in crisis situations and in instances of more incremental policy innovation.”  They positively point out the political leadership and policy innovation in regionalism demonstrated by former President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea who proposed the establishment of East Asia Vision Group and the trilateral Korea-China-Japan summit.

Furthermore, in practice, ASEAN often take lead in fieldwork such as infrastructure development initiatives while the APT countries take lead in policy proposals for regional community building.  Calder & Fukuyama notices the idea by some analysts on the importance of “infra-regionalism” which refers to connection of infrastructures such as roads, airports, and pipelines, in the region, which does not require any legal framework to do so.  ASEAN also adopt the proposal of ASEAN connectivity which can also enhance East Asian connectivity as stated in the Chairman’s Statement of the 15th ASEAN Summit in Thailand on 23-25 October 2009:
Intra-regional connectivity would benefit all AMS and their peoples, contribute to promoting ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture, facilitate the building of an ASEAN Community that is competitive and increasingly interlinked with the Asia-Pacific region and the world, and serve as a foundation for a more enhanced East Asian connectivity.
In addition, ASEAN leaders also agreed to establish ASEAN infrastructure development fund and call for the development of Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity.  In fact, this initiative is just for the connection of infrastructure in ASEAN.  However, if infrastructure in ASEAN member states is connected and well developed, it would also be directly beneficial for China, and other manufacturing companies owned by Japan and South Korea in China to get access to ASEAN’s market.  This is the flagship initiative which ASEAN has made regarding the “infra-regionalism” which contributes to East Asian regionalism. Lack of regional initiatives from ASEAN may also be a result of limited human resource development in comparison to high-level human resource development in the Plus Three countries.

          Therefore, to take leadership role in EAC, it is compulsory that ASEAN have to come up with new policy initiatives on regional cooperation, not only just host and chair regional meetings. To have specific initiatives, it needs to have a resilient and flexible political leadership and also strong research and development on policy issues which require good human resource development. Furthermore, ASEAN awareness should be strongly promoted among civil society, academia, and the business sector in ASEAN countries. So, to maintain its centrality in EAC, promotion of human resource development in ASEAN and bridging development gap through regional integration will contribute to ASEAN centrality in EAC.

If you wish to read my full paper on ASEAN centrality, please follow this link.

You may also like to read this interesting articles: 

1. Four ASEAN's Grand Scenario 
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2. Cambodia's Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012: A Success After All
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3. ASEAN In Review
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4. The Building of East Asian Community: the Role of ASEAN
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5. Cambodia's Priorities for ASEAN 2012.
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6. Three Critical Questions on Maintaining ASEAN Centrality.
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7. Challenges for ASEAN
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8. Outlook for ASEAN and East Asian Community Building (EAC)
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9. How Can ASEAN Centrality in East Asian Community be Maintained?
    (15 August 2011)

10. ASEAN Centrality Under Pressure
    (6 September 2011)

11. What is ASEAN Centrality?
    (7 September 2011)

12. Asian Regionalism and East Asian Community Building
    (29 August 2011)

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