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East-West Wire

Janadas Devan, a U.S.-based senior writer and columnist for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, says elements of that illusive identity will still come from outside the region.

“ The triangular relationship among the United States, China, and Japan,” Devan said at a recent East-West Center seminar, “will determine how Asia, especially Northeast Asia, is defined in the coming years.

“ The existence of Asia...its literal, not ideological existence...will depend...on the ability of transnational public spaces [e.g., ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, etc.] to restrain bellicose national policies,” Devan added. But he does not foresee a one-size- fits-all identity. “The creation or nurturing of transnational Asian identities...entails the positing of a pluralized ‘We’ straddling the region,” Devan said.

Young Whan Kihl, an EWC visiting POSCO fellow and professor of political science at Iowa State University, agrees with Devan on at least one point. He argues that true regionalism requires a sense of Asian identity that does not yet exist. That identity will need to coexist with national identities, as is now the case in Europe. In Asia, however, Kihl notes, “there are three major hurdles to overcome,” on the road to that coexistence. “Geography, history, and culture are all elements that could stand in the way of regionalism, of a cohesive Asian identity.”

Kihl acknowledged that “there is some evidence of a pan-Asia pop culture or identity emerging,” witnessed by the popularity of Korean television dramas today and the recent popularity of Japanese manga throughout the region. But he sees no similar signs in the areas of geography and history, especially in Northeast Asia.

Geography and history, however, were among the major issues at the inaugural session of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December 2005, a gathering that was fraught with birthing pains.

The EAS was first envisaged in 2001 as an evolution of the annual summit meetings of the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea). The purpose of the EAS was to promote the establishment of an East Asia Community, a community that would allow the three Northeast Asian countries to share the leadership role with ASEAN and make the new group less ASEAN-centered and more “East Asian” in identity.

The new forum was championed by Malaysia and China. But as Gueng Chan Bae, an EWC visiting scholar and a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, pointed out, “several ASEAN members had some reservation about launching EAS formally.” High on that list was Indonesia, who along with other members, “feared that the EAS could dilute the strategic importance of ASEAN.” Bae added that Singapore and Vietnam share Indonesia’s concerns and were noncommittal regarding the establishment of the EAS.

But, Bae added, Malaysia was able to convince the other ASEAN members to commit to the inaugural session, a move aimed at helping to bolster Malaysia’s “wishes to continue to take the lead in the regional integration process of East Asia.”

Beijing was also active in the lobbying efforts for the 2005 inaugural. The attraction to China, in addition to being one of the “+3” countries, is that under the ASEAN+3 makeup, the United States would be naturally excluded from membership in the EAS. That would give China a forum to, as Bae put it, “maximize its influence in the region” and also “play a central role, if not dominant one, in the process of East Asia community building.”

The results of the first EAS drew mixed reviews. Some skeptical analysts say the forum was another example of, as Bae put it, “a talk shop, another regional process heading nowhere.” Others, however, see the EAS as a constructive venture that could rival APEC or even the ASEAN+3 in the future.

Bae, solidly in the former camp, pointed out: “There was no consensus about its purpose, its relationship to the existing regional institutions, such as APEC and particularly ASEAN+3, or its role in community building in East Asia.”

In fact, defining membership called into question the concept or identity of East Asia itself. China and the majority of ASEAN members seemed to advocate limiting membership to the existing ASEAN+3 countries. However, several ASEAN members arguing for membership expansion. Indonesia called for India, Australia, and New Zealand to join the EAS. Singapore suggested that India be included. Japan went further, calling for invitations to be extended to leaders of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and even the United Nations.

The so-called expansionists had a motive. According to Bae, “they were concerned about the possibility of a China-led EAS, and shared a sense of urgency to add new members in order to counterbalance China.”

It was finally agreed upon that the inaugural EAS would include the ASEAN nations, the +3s, Australia, India, and New Zealand.

Bae argued the results of the inaugural meeting in Kuala Lumpur were “so muddled that everyone can live with them for now.” He adds the confusion and “face saving” that came out of the first summit override “the original concept of EAS that was to replace the ASEAN+3, eventually integrating into a community.”

Bae concluded, “It is still an open question whether or not the EAS will play a significant role in building a community in the region.”

Young Whan Kihl is professor of political science, Iowa State University and a visiting POSCO fellow at the EWC. He can be reached at 808-944-7244 or via e-mail at kihly@eastwestcenter.org. Gueng Chan Bae, an EWC visiting scholar and a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, can be reached via e-mail at gcbae@mofat.go.kr. Reprinted with permission from

 

 

 

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