Constructing a new East Asia

Posted in Other | 10-Jun-05 | Source: Straits Times

Singapore's Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong addresses the 15th Asian Corporate Conference in Bangkok, June 9, 2005.

The following is excerpted from a speech by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at an Asia Society conference in Bangkok yesterday.

IT IS one of the paradoxes of our time that, as the world globalises, regionalism simultaneously gets stronger. Globalisation and regionalism are two sides of the same coin, driven by the same powerful market forces. After the collapse of communism, there is no viable alternative to the market. That is why events such as the French and Dutch rejection of the European Constitution will only be blips. They will not reverse the basic strategic trend towards greater regionalism.

We have little choice but to construct a new architecture for East Asia. If East Asia does not coalesce, it will lose out to the Americas and Europe. The key question is not whether East Asia will integrate. It is how quickly, and the form East Asian regionalism will assume.

Some of the broad outlines are already evident. Regional economic links have expanded as a result of the growing web of free trade agreements. East Asian regionalism will, however, be far less institutionalised than in Europe. It will be driven more by market forces than political and security imperatives. New patterns of trade and investment, business decisions, production chains and webs of FTAs will draw the region together. Such a looser and less bureaucratised structure will be more appropriate to a diverse East Asia than the EU model.

Strategic complexity

EAST Asian regionalism will also occur in an environment of greater strategic complexity. Europe's impetus to integrate stemmed from the need to bury the past in order to face the Soviet threat. In East Asia, there is no such stark strategic imperative. Nor is there, unlike in the Americas, a single dominant power asserting an irresistible gravitational pull.

East Asian regionalism will be multipolar. China's rise is only one story. India's re-emergence is another. Japan will be a crucial player well into the 21st century as it remains an economic heavyweight.

Relationships among China, India and Japan are historically uneasy. Beijing, New Delhi and Tokyo understand the benefits of cooperating with each other. But the adjustments as they grow and redefine their places in the region will not be comfortable for any of them. Still, the market forces that are stitching the region together also make the matrix of their interests more complex, with shifting patterns of competition and cooperation.

Sino-Japanese tensions over the interpretation of the history of World War II are real and worrying. There has never been a period in East Asian history when China and Japan were simultaneously strong powers. Their search for a new modus vivendi will be fraught with anxieties. Hopefully, as China and Japan grow more economically interdependent, they will see strong incentives to build better ties.

China and India fought a short but bloody war in the early 1960s. Their wariness of each other lingers, although they are now improving ties. Yet as China and India develop, they will inevitably acquire the resources to pursue wider strategic interests across Asia, not all of which will coincide.

Japan's relations with India are less problematic than Sino-Japanese relations or Sino-Indian relations. But there is a sub-stratum of cultural unease that must be managed if the potential is to be realised. Premier Junichiro Koizumi's visit to India in April signalled a desire to establish a new basis for relations. But the common underlying concern with China is a fragile foundation upon which to build a stable relationship.

Great power competition and rivalry are facts of life. The European experience shows that the trend towards integration can mute but not erase differences of national interests. However, competition need not lead to conflict if it can be managed within an agreed framework.

This, for example, was the original, and remains the essential, raison d'etre of Asean. South-east Asia enjoys no natural coherence. Rather it is characterised by a deep political, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. It was not self-evident when Asean was formed some 38 years ago that, despite all that the region had endured, South-east Asia would today be at peace with itself. The Southeast Asian experience shows that the construction of a broad framework to manage and contain differences cannot be left to market forces. It must be the result of conscious political choices to shape and sustain a specific architecture. These choices have profound strategic consequences and will be hotly debated.

Defining East Asia

THIS indeed was the case during discussions on the modalities and membership of a proposed East Asia Summit that will be held in Malaysia in December. The big underlying issue was how to define East Asia.

In April, Asean foreign ministers agreed on a set of criteria that would allow the participation of India, Australia and New Zealand in the first East Asia Summit. This was a wise decision. It kept East Asian regionalism inclusive, forward-looking and open. But that decision was only the end of one chapter, not the end of the book.

There is now an urgent need to establish a substantive agenda for the East Asia Summit and to distinguish it from existing processes like the Asean's annual summit meetings with China, Japan and South Korea. It would be a mistake to define the East Asia Summit's agenda too narrowly. If the East Asia Summit is to contribute to the elaboration of the kind of framework for managing and containing the diverse realities of East Asian regionalism, it must not only have the widest possible participation, it must also deal with the widest possible range of issues. It cannot confine itself to economic or functional issues. It must also confront sensitive security concerns.

Role of the US

NOR can the East Asia Summit be the only pillar supporting the entire architecture of East Asian regionalism. It is only one of many. If we are to discuss security issues, the role of the United States in East Asian regionalism cannot be excluded.

The US has been deeply embedded in the region for many decades. The US will remain a key, indeed the dominant, player well into the 21st century. American power will provide the overarching strategic unity within which the interactions of Chinese, Indian and Japanese interests with American interests will be an increasingly important factor.

In a wider sense, the US is already part of East Asia. The question is how to give structural form to this reality. An East Asian architecture that does not have the US as one of its pillars would be an unstable structure.

Historically, the preferred US structure for its engagement of East Asia was bilateral; woven in a web of security alliances and other relationships with America as its centre. It would not be prudent to discard what has served the region and America so well for so long. But such structures were designed to deal with Cold War threats and contingencies that no longer exist, or at least are no longer the key issues.

There are, of course, voices in the US that seek to recast China as America's strategic adversary in a new Cold War. They argue that it is better to deal with China now when it is relatively weak rather than after it has become strong. This is dangerously myopic. To treat China as an enemy will only arouse Chinese nationalism and make China an enemy. The rest of the region will not play this game. It is not in our interest, nor the world's.

There need not be any fundamental conflict between the US and China. President George W. Bush understands the need for the US and China to have good and stable relations. I believe so does President Hu Jintao. On the critical regional issues, there is broad agreement.

What is needed is to supplement the East Asia Summit, the Asean Plus Three and America's bilateral relationships with other institutions that will include the major powers.

Here, the basis already exists in Asean's post-ministerial dialogues, the Asean Regional Forum and Apec. We need to seriously re-look these structures and fora. We should also examine how they can be enhanced to serve as broad frameworks within which East Asian regionalism can be elaborated.

Neither should we only think in terms of a single structure. Instead, we should think of an array of institutions that can be deployed according to the issue and need or, to change the analogy slightly, in terms of a variable geometry that changes shape and form according to issue and need.

The US need not be involved in each and every institution, but the US must be an integral part of the overall architecture.

For such an approach to work, two conditions must be met.

  • First, the region must understand the need for it to work.

  • Second, and equally important, the US must want to play the game. This unfortunately is not to be taken for granted. The US' attitude towards East Asian regionalism and regional diplomacy, generally, has been ambivalent. I sense that some in Washington still ask whether the game is worth the candle.

Let me leave you with some observations that I hope will provide our American friends with food for thought. Formal Asean-India dialogue relations were established in 1995. In the 10 years since, 14 Asean-India mechanisms have been established. Formal Asean-China dialogue relations were established in 1996. In the nine years since, 27 Asean-China mechanisms at different levels have been established. Asean-Japan dialogue relations were formalised in 1977. In the 28 years since, 33 Asean-Japan mechanisms have been established.

The US-Asean dialogue relationship was formalised at the same time as Japan's, almost three decades ago, but there are currently only seven Asean-US bodies and they meet only infrequently.