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Feb 25, 2008, Special Asian Security Forum

From right: Jeff Schott, Ellen Frost and John Miller discuss Frost's new book, Asia's New Regionalism, at the East-West Center in Washington on February 25, 2008.

Asia's New Regionalism

(WASHINGTON, DC) February 26, 2008 – Asian integration has acquired new momentum. Asian governments are forging closer links and building new regional architecture, while globalization is fueling the spontaneous (re)integration of Asia’s maritime regions. What does all this mean for the United States?  In a seminar at the East-West Center in Washington, Ellen Frost, Visiting Fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Defense University, discussed the nature of this regional resurgence and its implications for the U.S.

Drawing from her new book, Asia’s New Regionalism , Frost argued that Asia is witnessing a return to a pre-colonial maritime configuration that includes India to the West and stretches as far east as New Zealand. This regional “re-mapping,” spurred initially by the emergence of regional entities such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has as much to do with the search for national autonomy and stability as it does with economic expediency.  According to Frost, Asian regionalization reflects both a growing awareness of transnational threats and the need to accommodate and hedge against a rising China. Southeast Asian countries in particular view the current lack of U.S. interest in the region—and the concurrent attention from regional “suitors” such as China, Japan, and India—as an opportunity to channel rivalries in constructive ways.  These subtle shifts in what Frost terms the “balance of influence” in Asia have occurred at the exclusion of the United States, and over time, the combination of China as a skillful and dominant regional player and continued U.S. passivity could erode U.S. influence in the region.

Yet, Frost also noted that because many Asian countries recognize the strategic utility of the U.S. presence, which affords security benefits in the form of military assistance and offers a means of balancing China, the U.S. need not fear categorical alienation from the region anytime soon.  Although such community building has not been accompanied by the emergence of a corresponding “regional identity,” largely due to the lack of political capital being invested to bring integration to the public mind, the U.S. should nevertheless continue to engage the region and promote policies that complement this ongoing regionalization.

Commenting on Frost’s talk, discussant John Miller of the Foreign Service Institute reinforced the idea of a shift in Asia’s regional constructs, explaining that the three new important regional groupings—“Greater East Asia,” “Eastern Asia,” and the “Asia-Pacific region”—are the product of both a deliberate nation state-driven process and a spontaneous integration driven by non-state actors.  Miller, a historian by training, also contended that these regional phenomena—the rise of ASEAN, the revival of Greater East Asia, and the emergence of an Asia-Pacific region—occurred because of, and not in spite of, the Cold War.  The “dynamism of contemporary maritime Asia reflects the dynamism of historical maritime Asia,” and owes much to Cold War priorities.

Jeffrey Schott of the Peterson Institute also provided commentary from an economic perspective.  Schott elaborated on the differences in the ways Asian countries negotiate regional trade agreements vice those with the United States.  Intra-Asian pacts, he noted, tend more toward political commitments than legal obligations and foresee a much longer time horizon—often in decades rather than quarters—for integration to occur.  East Asian initiatives in particular have an “aspirational quality” that is incrementalist in nature, pausing to accommodate adjustments in the political process and ultimately premised upon the recognition that building consensus takes time. In terms of content, Asian trade agreements also tend to ratify the status quo, and sometimes codify regional networks. China is now a key production platform for exports from the region, while energy is going to be a critical constraint.  Schott also remarked that while all models of Asian integration start with ASEAN, ASEAN has yet to become an integrated unit, and it is possible we will begin to see closer economic ties between the countries of Northeast Asia over the coming years.

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