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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

An 'Asia-Pacific' chimera

August 6, 2009

By Andy Yee
Asia Times
Aug 6, 2009

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature
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Since Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd
proposed building an Asia-Pacific community in
June last year, there has been considerable
debate among policymakers and academics on
reforming the regional architecture of East Asia.
In the recently concluded US-China Strategic and
Economic Dialogue, however, regional security
arrangements received little attention.

If anything can be learned about the recent
proliferation of multilateral institutions, it is
that they are very often driven by, not drivers
of, the political and economic realities of each region.

Around China's near abroad in East, Central and
South Asia, three regional communities have taken shape: the Association of

Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the South
Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
(SAARC). These three regions have different
degrees of economic integration. Politically,
three respective axes differentiate them:
US-China, China-Russia and China-India.

Political relationships in the three axes show
sharp contrast. Take a look at military ties.
China and Russia held joint military exercises
under the name "Peace Mission" as recently as
last month, and also in 2007 and 2005. In
contrast, the US and China agreed only to resume
high-level military exchanges. A few months ago,
their relations were shadowed by a maritime
incident in the South China Sea. In June this
year, India was ramping up its military
deployment along its border with China,
positioning two army divisions as well as squadrons of Su-30.

By observing patterns of regional architecture in
these regions, we can see that they are often
manifestations of political and economic realities.

East Asia
East Asian regional architectures have developed
significantly over the past two decades,
represented by a matrix of organizations
including ASEAN, the ASEAN+1s, ASEAN+3 and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

These arrangements are very different from other
regions. Firstly, they emphasize informal
dialogue and trust-building over formal
agreements ("the ASEAN way"). Secondly, they are
all ASEAN-driven, but have significant overlaps,
representing different views on the membership of
an East Asian community. Thirdly, they focus
mainly on free trade, economic and development
issues. Recently, however, they are moving
towards wider regional issues and non-traditional security threats.

Different interpretations exist as to China's
goals of multilateral diplomacy: whether this is
a realpolitik effort to advance national interest
and erode US power in the region, or a genuine
commitment as a responsible stakeholder. While it
is difficult to identify empirical evidence, the
above-mentioned regional characteristics suggest that both may be occurring.

East Asian economies have well-developed trade
and financial relationships. The ASEAN-Japan free
trade area (known as the Comprehensive Economic
Partnership Agreement) took effect in December
2008. An ASEAN-China Free Trade Area will take
effect in 2010 for certain ASEAN countries, and
be fully developed in 2015. The ASEAN+3 countries
boost a common regional reserve pool known as the
Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization of
US$120 billion. Meanwhile, Beijing often speaks
of China's peaceful rise (heping jueqi). It
demonstrates this by active participation in multilateral organizations.

However, China's neighbors do not want to see
Sino-US rivalry played out in their front yard.
Shortly after the 2001 EP-3 surveillance plane
incident, Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan
Yew remarked: "We in Southeast Asia held our
breath. When it was over, we heaved a sigh of
relief." They do not want to be forced to choose
between the US and China. An ASEAN-led system is
acceptable to China, the US and other East Asian countries.

Yet, US alliances in Asia are still concerned
about China's dominance in ASEAN+3. In response,
they pushed for the creation of EAS, by adding
India, Australia and New Zealand into the
existing ASEAN+3. In order not to appear
obstructionist, China has tried to downplay the
importance of EAS rather than refusing to be part
of it. Before the first EAS summit in 2005, China
maintained that ASEAN+3, not the EAS, should be
in the driver's seat for the East Asia
community-building exercise. In the second EAS
summit in 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao argued that
the EAS should more properly serve as a strategic
platform for the exchange of ideas and facilitation of cooperation.

As a hedge, China prefers informal,
non-institutionalized dialogues to reduce the
risk of a coordinated effort to constrain its action.

Central Asia
The SCO is the one regional organization that
China has founded and that it is proud of. In
contrast to East Asia, it is more
institutionalized and has more rules and formal
agreements. In 2004, the Regional Anti-terrorism
Structure was established. In 2007, armed forces
of all member states participated in the joint
Peace Mission anti-terrorism exercises.

Evidently, the two regional powers, China and
Russia, view themselves as having aligned
interests in the region. After the Xinjiang
incident on July 5, the People's Daily launched
commentaries accusing the US and the three evil
forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism as
detrimental to Xinjiang and the region.

Within 48 hours of the violence, Moscow issued a
statement strongly supportive of Beijing. On July
10, the SCO issued a statement to "further deepen
practical cooperation in the field of fighting
against terrorism, separatism, extremism and
transnational organized crime for the sake of
safeguarding regional security and stability".

In return, China is satisfied with Russia's
effort to counter against US influence in Central
Asia through the Collective Security Treaty
Organization (CSTO). It also has a stake in
supporting Russia's effort to build an
anti-terrorism center in Kyrgyzstan and develop
the CSTO Rapid Reaction Force in Central Asia.

The China-Russia leaders' meeting in June
following the BRIC summit indicated a high degree
of political and foreign policy coordination in
future in Central Asia. Importantly, China
expressed its support of Russia over the situation in Caucasus.

For the moment, Sino-Russian convergence over
regional security in Central Asia results in
their stepping up of political efforts in
regional cooperation. This enables the creation
of a simple and authoritative regional architecture, namely the SCO.

South Asia
SAARC, the equivalent of ASEAN in Southeast Asia,
is a dysfunctional organization that attracts
little enthusiasm among its members. It is
crippled by the strategic rivalry between India
and Pakistan. In addition, a less dynamic trade
regime means that SAARC is not a priority to
South Asian countries as ASEAN is to Southeast
Asian countries. According to the International
Monetary Fund, India's trade with SAARC amounted
to 2.8% of its total trade in 2006, while its
trade with East Asia amounted to 24.9%.

China became an observer of SAARC in 2005, and
Chinese foreign ministers attended the SAARC
leaders' summit in 2007 and 2008. China has a
vital interest in cross-border integration
schemes with South Asia so as to develop eastern Tibet and Yunnan province.

In 1999, the Yunnan provincial government hosted
the Conference on Regional Cooperation and
Development with India, Myanmar and Bangladesh in
Kunming. They approved the Kunming Initiative,
which aimed to improve communications between
southwestern China and northeastern India by
developing transportation links. The initiative
currently remains a non-governmental one.

At present, China-SAARC cooperation is limited to
diplomatic exchanges, official seminars and trade
fairs. While China has sought a greater role in
SAARC, Chinese assistant Foreign Minister He
Yafei said in 2007 that it was still too early
for China to apply for SAARC membership.

India is highly skeptical about China's South
Asia policy, including its strategic relationship
with Pakistan, unresolved border disputes,
Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean and
China's influence over Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka to balance India.

New Delhi and Beijing seem to be focusing their
naval strategies on each other. China is
constructing naval stations and refueling ports
in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India's rival Pakistan.
India has transformed a bay in the southern state
of Karnataka into an advanced naval installation.

During the SCO and BRIC summits on June 16 and
17, Beijing avoided bringing their long-standing
land border disputes to the forum. Merely over a
week before, on June 8, New Delhi announced it
would deploy two additional army divisions and
two air force squadrons near its border with China.

Policy implications for an 'Asia-Pacific community'
We can briefly summarize China's relative
experience of multilateral diplomacy in the three
regions. With East Asia, it is strong
economically but weak politically. With Central
Asia, it is weak economically but strong
politically. With South Asia, it is weak both economically and politically.

Now let's return to the fundamentals of East Asia
as a region. Firstly, it is a stable and dynamic
economic regime. Secondly, it is crowded with
competing regional leaders: the US, China, Japan
and ASEAN. These fundamentals have a complex,
non-binding and economic-focused regional
arrangement. It will neither move towards the
direction of greater institutionalization and
stronger political unity, like the SCO, nor will
it deteriorate, like the arguably dysfunctional SAARC.

With this background, we can understand the
constraints facing East Asia and foresee what a
future regional framework will look like. It will
respect all countries in the region, big and
small, as equal partners. It will be open and
inclusive to countries both within and outside
the region. It will have no clear regional leader
and there will be no willingness to cause too
much disruption to the status quo. It will also
be a mix of formal and informal arrangements.
Therefore, it will be a flexible framework.

ASEAN, the current driver of the regional agenda
acceptable to all major powers, would act as the
core platform, out of which trans-regional and
sub-regional channels and dialogues could be established.

Given the dynamics of East Asia and the emergence
of global challenges like climate change,
financial crisis and non-traditional security
threats, the scope for multilateral cooperation
is great. However, realizing the complex
political realities, it is impossible to create a
brand new regional institution. The most probable
way would be adjustments and supplements over the
existing architecture. Ultimately a harmonious
and effective framework would be a product of the balance of various powers.

Andy Yee is a postgraduate student in Pacific
Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
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