Asian Regionalism

Asia-Pacific regionalism has been spurred by increasing economic integration but pulled apart by territorial tensions. These two trends have proceeded on separate paths with only occasional intersection.  However, security dynamics are likely to increasingly influence regionalism as China rises and the US attempts to “pivot” more of its foreign policy to Asia.  ASEAN continues to serve as a base for regional organizations, but in 2012 questions were raised about whether that center could hold.   ASEAN’s goal to complete the blueprint for the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 2015 puts additional pressure on the group.  On a broader regional plane, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has expanded in recent months with the addition of Japan, Mexico, and Canada. Meanwhile, the launch of negotiations for the ASEAN-based Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in late 2012 raises fears of a bifurcated landscape for the Asia-Pacific region into US and Chinese economic “spheres of influence.”

After a decade of rising regionalist aspirations and a flurry of community-building initiatives, the past year and a half has seen a slight shift in the momentum and direction of Asian regionalism.   While the signing of regional free trade agreements continues apace and discussions on regional cooperative mechanisms proceed unabated, the perceptions and political goals of many in the region have been recalibrated in the face of new challenges and new opportunities. By far, the biggest challenge was the global economic crisis, which had a mixed impact on Asian regionalism.  On one hand, it spurred calls for regional action, much in the way of the financial crisis that hit Asia hard in 1997-98.  Moreover, the relatively swift recovery of Asian economies seemed to highlight the fact that world economic power is shifting to East Asia.   On the other hand, crisis revealed the extent to which East Asia remains deeply integrated with the global economy, in both trade and finance, and it called into question the relevance of regional solutions for dealing with global challenges.

New opportunities arose with the election of new political leaders in Australia, Japan, and the US, each of whom placed regional initiatives high on their political agenda. Australia’s Kevin Rudd and Japan’s Hatoyama Yukio laid out competing grand visions for regional architecture that engaged Asian diplomats and policy analysts in lofty and abstract debates about institutional design and the proper membership and pacing for community-building. The change in the US had an even greater impact on regional dynamics.  After years of Bush administration policies that were perceived, fairly or not, as showing a lack of US interest in regional engagement, the Obama team took every opportunity to deliver the message that “the US is back” in Asia.  Its outreach to ASEAN has been particularly aggressive, raising the hopes and expectations of those who would like to see greater US involvement in regional community-building.

On the ground, however, progress on achieving tangible cooperation in regional frameworks, both trans-Pacific and East Asian, has been meager at best.  The global economic crisis gave rise to the G20 that, while elevating the symbolic weight of Asian economies in global governance, has also created institutional competition for regional frameworks.  Regional economic integration faces emerging and unresolved challenges, as the noodle bowl of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) grows more tangled and the impact of Chinese economic competition deepens.  Meanwhile, effective frameworks for multilateral security cooperation remain elusive.

Daily Digest

The Diplomat: Why Hasn’t the ASEAN Economic Community Benefited From the US-China Trade War?

The inability of Southeast Asian countries to take advantage of the US-China trade dispute is the result of structural weaknesses in the ASEAN Economic Community.

South China Morning Post: US fears China-backed resort in Cambodia could house military and ‘threaten coherence in Asean’

Why Cambodia’s Dara Sakor resort has raised suspicions that the development will eventually become a Chinese military base.

Asia Times: Beijing strengthens its hold on South China Sea

Why China’s missile tests in the South China Sea could signal an increased risk of miscalculation in the region.

The National Interest: Hong Kong’s Crisis Does Not Extend to Taiwan

An explanation of the historical differences between Taiwan and Hong Kong show why the path toward reconciling differences with China must also be different.

Asia Unbound: Can North Korea Be Deterred?

An explanation of the limitations of the deterrence relationship between the US and the DPRK.

The Atlantic: Trump Is Running Out of Time to Denuclearize North Korea

An assessment of what it will take to move the US-DPRK relationship beyond the current stalemate over denuclearization versus ending hostile relations.

The Interpreter: How Indonesia finds itself in the middle of a US-China trade war

An assessment of Indonesia’s efforts to avoid getting caught up in the economic rivalry between the US and China.

The Diplomat: US-Myanmar Policy Under Trump in the Spotlight With New Sanctions

An assessment of the targeted sanctions imposed by the US on Myanmar’s military leaders.

Asia Times: Ignoring the US, Philippines goes with Huawei

Exploring the implications of the Philippine decision to move forward with engaging Huawei to develop its 5G network.

38 North – Remediation of Yongbyon: The First Step Towards Cooperative Threat Reduction?

An explanation of what a cooperative threat reduction approach would look like at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site.