Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Time is Ripe

What goes around, comes around. Asian leaders meet tomorrow in Kuala Lumpur to give new life to an idea about regional unity that has been around for years but was largely neglected until now. The new East Asia Summit looks a lot like former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s controversial East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC).

The time was not ripe when he first proposed the all-Asia grouping back in 1990. Washington vigorously opposed formation of any Asian entity from which it was excluded. Japan, taking its lead from Washington was lukewarm to the idea. China, fresh from the Tiananmen tragedy, momentarily retreated into its shell. So, the proposal went nowhere.

Instead, Washington embraced another kind of pan-Pacific entity first proposed by Australia’s ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, that eventually became the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC). It grew to encompass nearly a dozen nations, including a couple South American countries with Pacific coastlines. The grouping recently met in Pusan, South Korea.

But in recent years the gloss has gone off APEC. Those who originally argued that APEC was too diffuse to do much good probably have been proven right. Not to mention that the shtick about all the leaders donning the national costume of the host country is beginning to pall. I mean it was pretty cute when, at the first meeting in Indonesia, they all wore colorful batik shirts, but they looked plain silly in those Korean mandarin gowns.

Attending the summit are the ten members of ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea, all countries that would have made up the original EAEC. At the last minute Australia and New Zealand were invited to the summit. Also attending is India, which makes the term East Asia Summit something of a misnomer. The U.S. is not a participant, the first Asian grouping from which it has been excluded. President George W. Bush is probably happy he doesn’t have to drag himself across the Pacific so soon after his last Asian trip.

Nevertheless, Washington seems to be more relaxed about the new group. America had reason to be suspicious of Mahathir’s project because of his pronounced anti-Western views. The U.S. feared he would steer the organization in directions that were inimical to American interests in Asia.

Interestingl, the old curmudgeon came out of retirement to say a few sour words about the summit. Mahathir complained that it has become diluted and diverted by including outsiders like Australia and New Zealand. “Australia’s views do not represent the East, but the views of America,” he said.

What has changed in the past dozen years? For one thing, the number of Asian groupings and forums has exploded. Where once there was only ASEAN (dating back to 1976), there are now the various spinoffs: ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, The Asian Regional Forum and more. Washington has many venues to makes its case, either as a dialogue partner or member.

Another major catalyst was Chinas accession to the World Trade Organization, which meant it plays by the same trade rules as the other Asian nations. The economics of all the countries are becoming more interdependent, and less dependent on exports to the U.S. China has already displaced the U.S. as Japan’s largest trading partner. South Korea’s business interests in China too are growing in leaps and bounds. China established a Free Trade Area (similar to NAFTA) with the ASEAN bloc.

The East Asia Summit may evolve into a regional grouping that, if not exactly an Asian common market, would at least be able to speak for the region in discussions with the other economic blocs, such as the European Community and North America. Why should Asia alone among the world’s three major economic “poles” not have its own group?

1 Comments:

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January 14, 2006 at 4:15 PM  

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