TCS Daily


Riding the East Asian Tiger

By Yang Razali Kassim - June 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Something needs to be done about the East Asian security landscape. Kicking off the 19th Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur on June 1, Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, described the evolving regional security picture as "depressing." Malaysian Prime Minister pointed to the recent, alarming hardening of strategic alliances in North Asia, saying there were of grave concern to the region.

The United States and its ally, Japan, issued a joint statement declaring Taiwan a matter of mutual security concern. (This is a new development; until recently, China had not been openly declared a military threat or a potential threat.) The joint statement was a response to China's anti-secession law, which was designed to stymie a Taiwanese drift towards independence. Regional think-tank chiefs have noted that China's anti-secession law has caused some nervousness in the US and Japan. The joint U.S.-Japan response raised fears in Southeast Asia of a Pacific power play, as a hegemonic United States responded to an emerging China.

Complicating matters, Sino-Japanese relations have also taken a nosedive over a range of issues, driven by rising nationalism in both countries. Manifesting this was China's "snub" of Japan over Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni shrine. The visiting Chinese vice-premier Wu Yi's decision to skip her meeting with the Japanese premier was as audacious as it was unprecedented, raising Sino-Japanese tensions to a new level. At the same time, the nuclear threat from North Korea is adding a new dimension to the already complex relationship between China and the United States. Beijing's softer stance towards Pyongyang, some worry, could be misread by Washington as an attempt to minimize U.S. influence in the region, which could, in turn, provoke an American counter-response.

Reshaping East Asia

Prime Minister Abdullah described the "hardening" of the strategic alignments in the region as both "unnecessary and destabilising." The Asia Pacific region therefore should work towards strengthening the regional order. But how? In this context, it is perhaps surprising that the PM did not mention that Malaysia would soon be hosting the first-ever East Asian Summit (EAS), in December of this year. His silence belied the sensitive and still fragile nature of the emerging group, whose form and function are still being intensely debated. But there is no doubt that the summit will finally give concrete shape, no matter how tentative, to the elusive creature called East Asian regionalism.

The EAS has been endorsed by ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is comprised of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei as well Myanmar plus the three Indochina countries of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The EAS is a logical follow-through of the old East Asian Economic Group (EAEG) - later known as the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) - first floated by then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1990. The EAEC proposal had serious problems taking off, given strong opposition from the United States and its Asian allies, namely Japan.

The US feared that the EAEC was designed to keep it out of an emerging East Asia dominated by a strong China. Working around the roadblock, ASEAN evolved an alternative process involving the three Northeast Asian states -- China, Japan and South Korea. This alternative process has since come to be known as "ASEAN plus Three." For all intents and purposes, the ASEAN Plus Three (or APT), was the EAEC in all but name. Since then, all the reasons that Mahathir had cited to justify why an East Asian club was badly needed bore themselves out. The Asian financial crisis of 1997, and then the SARS epidemic, exposed the impotence of East Asia due to the weak habit of cooperation among the regional states, especially the "Plus Three" countries.

Unfortunately, the EAS faces the risk of being torpedoed by the same old issues. The debate over what the final shape of the EAS should be is still raging. But it is important for the region not to let such old issues re-emerge to further divide it. After all, there is no reason why East Asia cannot have its own grouping when other regions have theirs.

Two big stumbling blocks however have to be resolved if East Asia's club is to take off. The first is how to reconcile and accommodate the competing strategic interests of the United States and China - the two powers that can make or break the EAS. The second -- a related sub-text -- is how to bring in other emerging powers, such as India, or parties which do not want to be left out of this highly significant process, such as Australia and New Zealand.

So far, it is a good sign that all the key players are learning from past mistakes and realize the inevitability of an East Asian club.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore..

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