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Asiaweek Pictures.
Eric Teo Chu Cheow is honarary secretary of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a former Singapore diplomat.

Viewpoint: Challenges to 'East Asia'
Fears and uncertainties may block wider regionalism

Much hope for a nascent East Asian regionalism, encompassing both Northeast and Southeast Asia, arose from the July meeting in Bangkok of the ASEAN foreign ministers plus the security-focused ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and inaugural ASEAN+3 meeting. However, numerous challenges, and even obstacles, remain on the take-off path of an eventual East Asian entity. They include internal strains in ASEAN, the economic validity of any such entity, uncertainties in the triangular rapprochement taking place in Northeast Asia, the Taiwan political wild card, U.S. policy toward Asia (notably in security and trade), Russia's emergence under President Vladimir Putin and the domestic politics and ongoing redefinition of China's and Japan's regional roles.

ASEAN ministers met in Bangkok during difficult times. The 10 countries acknowledge growing socio-economic disparities amongst themselves, as well as within each member-state; these will grow with globalization and the digital revolution. Perceptions of ASEAN as ineffective and a "sunset organization" were heard in Bangkok and urgent calls to restore international confidence in the grouping rang out loud. Its institutional and geopolitical weaknesses, as seen during the Asian Crisis and in its current politico-social upheavals, have added real urgency for ASEAN to look for a new impetus, which could perhaps be found in a bigger East Asian grouping.

It is still unclear if ASEAN, Japan, China and South Korea all see an economic raison d'etre for a wider grouping, even if it is based on open regionalism. ASEAN countries certainly see the advantage of joining with the larger economies in the north, but it may not be apparent for Japan or China, which are in the midst of serious reforms, to see more rapid economic overtures to ASEAN, especially in trade.

Furthermore, despite spectacular rapprochement amongst Seoul, Pyongyang, Tokyo and Beijing, some fundamental uncertainties remain. First, there is no guarantee that Pyongyang-Seoul reconciliation will proceed smoothly, even after its successful start. China's intermediary role between the two Koreas could come under stress if reconciliation unravels. Japan-Korea ties will hinge on what Tokyo expects and can ultimately get out of Pyongyang, especially in security assurances versus war reparations. The recent round of Tokyo-Pyongyang talks did not produce significant results. Lastly, China's relations with Japan are far from stabilized, given the lingering mutual suspicions and what Beijing sees as sporadic outbursts from Japanese reactionary forces.

Taiwan is the political wild card in the ASEAN+3 equation. China's stance of no longer tolerating delays in settling this "internal" issue and its tirades against the United States and Japan for supporting Taiwan's "split" from the mainland are of geopolitical concern. Depending on how President Chen Shui-bian maneuvers vis-a-vis Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope as both have powerful democratic lobbies favoring Taipei. Eventual Beijing-Taipei hostilities and the thorny issue of the Theater Missile Defense (TMD), which China vehemently opposes, could polarize regional sentiments and pulverize East Asian regionalism. So long as there are insecurities, the American security umbrella will remain, thereby dashing hopes for any East Asian grouping.

Another factor which may impact on such goals is a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin, who has less qualms than his predecessor in challenging Washington for world influence. Russia's enhanced partnership with China (to openly oppose Washington's TMD proposal) and a more active diplomacy in both Koreas could pose a direct challenge to the U.S. Russia could thus either inadvertently contribute toward Northeast Asian cooperation by helping to "steer" traditional allies away from the U.S., or eventually thwart it out of fear of seeing a new bloc emerging on its eastern and southern flanks.

Furthermore, a lot will depend on domestic politics in the two big Asian powers. China is in the initial stages of a leadership transition, with the next Communist Party Congress in 2002 to decide if the Jiang-Zhu team should make way for emerging leaders like Hu Jintao. It is hoped that the political transition will be smooth in China. Japan's June 25 polls gave the country a weakened coalition government. After a "lost decade" in the 1990s, Japan today can ill afford weak political leadership, especially when its economic recovery is nascent and while it reassesses its own role in Asia.

East Asian regionalism can only succeed if both Northeast and Southeast Asia find peace and security within their respective regions, and a converging economic need to link up. Rapprochement is certainly at work in Northeast Asia and trends of further consolidation can be expected in ASEAN. There are converging needs for a pan-Asian economic grouping, following the collapse of the Seattle WTO talks last November. Institutionalization of the ASEAN+3 meetings is proof. But it remains to be seen if the economic raison d'etre for East Asian regionalism is strong enough for these countries to overcome their security fears and the many other obstacles in order to come together.

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