A Changing East Asia

Shifting Definitions of “East Asia” and Regional Cooperation


East Asia is a diverse area encompassing the ASEAN members as well as Japan and its Northeast Asian neighbors, China and Korea. Asia specialist Miyagi Taizō examines the history of cooperation in the region and the issues it now faces.

East Asia as the Product of Regional Cooperation

Beginning in the summer of 2012, East Asia was the scene of a series of fierce standoffs related to territorial disputes, such as those between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) and between Japan and Korea over Takeshima (Dokdo in Korean). We have yet to see any sign of these disputes quieting down. This does not seem like an environment in which discussions of East Asian regional cooperation are appropriate. In truth, though, it is a grave miscalculation to view the recent frictions and clashes between Japan and its Chinese and Korean neighbors as fatal ones, and to declare that regional cooperation is therefore impossible. The very concept of East Asia as discussed in this series of articles is, as I will show below, nothing other than the result of progress made in regional cooperation over the last two decades or more.

We should first consider the fact that East Asia, although a familiar-sounding term, is actually a vague concept. What geographic area do most Japanese have in mind when they use this term? One image likely held by many people is the area encompassing Japan, China, and the Korean Peninsula—Northeast Asia, in other words. These countries are close to one another and share the influences of Chinese civilization, such as kanji characters and the use of chopsticks. It is only natural for the Japanese people, who have deep ties with China and the Korean Peninsula that go back to ancient times, to view these places as being in the same region as their own country. Up through recent years, the term “East Asia” as used by the Japanese signified this region.

Another image of the boundaries circumscribing East Asia has come to the fore in recent years, though, and this newer image is growing more important. This regional concept begins with China, Japan, and Korea and adds the nations of Southeast Asia to the geographic definition. Whereas once people qualified the term—talking about “East Asia more broadly defined,” for instance—nowadays “East Asia” on its own is generally taken to include these entities farther to the south as well. When Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio (2009–10) proposed the formation of an “East Asian Community,” this extended region, including China, Japan, and Korea as well as the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is what he envisioned as the core of his concept. The East Asia we are dealing with in this collection of essays is also this larger version.

How did this shift from a narrowly defined East Asia to a more inclusive regional concept come about? The key to this change was, in fact, regional cooperation efforts. I turn next to the history of this cooperation, with my focus on East Asia broadly defined.

Expanding to Include the Southeast

It was Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, who first formally used “East Asia” to refer to the Northeast Asian states plus the ASEAN members. In 1990 Mahathir proposed the formation of an East Asian Economic Community, starting with the creation of a forum for China, Japan, Korea and the ASEAN states, to discuss economic issues. Underlying his proposal was his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the global trade order, where all debate was led by the Western nations. The United States, fearing its presence could be diminished in Asia, fought fiercely against this new community. Japan, which had at first been warm to the idea of participating in the scheme, backed off in the face of this American opposition, stating that it would only take part if it were joined by Australia and New Zealand as well. In the end, the EAEC never saw the light of day.

The regional cooperation framework espoused in the EAEC scheme, though, encompassing the Northeast Asian states and the 10 members of ASEAN, would eventually be realized in an unexpected way. The trigger for this development was the Asian currency crisis of 1997. The International Monetary Fund stepped in with aid packages, but these were contingent on the recipient countries’ implementation of “structural adjustment packages” that pushed them into even worse conditions. When the ASEAN members asked for further help, they called the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea to a regional summit to discuss ways to respond to the economic crisis. The result was the Chiang Mai Initiative, a currency-swap agreement involving all 13 countries that aimed to prevent another currency crisis. The ties of economic codependence that had been deepening among these players provided fertile ground for this new arrangement, as did the shared recognition that they had to prevent a crisis in one nation from sparking a chain reaction that could spread throughout the entire region.

At around the same time, ASEAN Plus Three—a group with China, Japan, and Korea added to the Southeast Asian countries—began holding summits and foreign ministers’ meetings, growing into a more systematic framework as these gatherings came to be held on a regular schedule. At the 2005 ASEAN+3 summit, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the 13 members were joined by Australia, India, and New Zealand, thus marking the first East Asia Summit.

Through developments like these, the ASEAN+3 region came to be called “East Asia” more frequently, and the more broadly defined sense of the phrase became cemented as a regional concept. In this way, the process of regional cooperation forged the identity of East Asia as we know it today.

Split States and a Complicated Regional Stage

The above shows that ASEAN served as the catalyst for the formation of this more broadly defined regional concept of East Asia. Viewed another way, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for the three northeastern neighbors to forge a cooperative relationship without the presence of ASEAN. The leaders of China, Japan, and Korea took part in ASEAN+3 gatherings beginning in 1999, but it was not until the first Japan-China-ROK Trilateral Summit Meeting took place in 2008 that they came together without ASEAN involvement.

What makes regional cooperation such a challenge in Northeast Asia? A comparison with the situation in Southeast Asia is instructive. Today ASEAN may stand as the poster child for regional integration in Asia, but in 1967, when the group was first formed, there were considerable doubts about whether it would be a stable entity that could last. Two of the core original members, Indonesia and Malaysia, were bogged down in conflict on the island of Borneo over the creation of Malaysia and its territory there; this conflict continued until just before the launch of ASEAN. Through the “ASEAN way,” though—an approach that emphasizes consensus above all else—the group has flexibly managed its affairs through the years, maintaining its solidarity after a fashion and extending its membership to cover the entire Southeast Asian region. This long history of integrative effort, stretching back to the late 1960s, is what has made ASEAN the model for Asian regional integration that it is today.

In comparison, Northeast Asia in the twenty-first century continues to be characterized by the legacies of the Cold War and even older confrontations in the form of the split states of China and Taiwan and North and South Korea. No other region in the world faces a situation like this. Northeast Asia is, in fact, home to these two divided states along with a nation that once invaded them and subjected them to colonization—Japan. The relations among the countries in this part of the world are complex reflections of the Cold War divisions and the brutal events that mark their histories.

Talks between Japan and South Korea on establishing diplomatic ties after the war were frequently snarled by arguments on Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula. Although the two nations both belonged to the liberalist camp during the Cold War, it was fully two decades after the end of World War II by the time they finally normalized diplomatic relations in 1965. It was not until 1972 that Japan formed diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China; at that time it also cut off formal relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), with which it had previously enjoyed deep ties.

South Korea and China, meanwhile, did not establish diplomatic ties until 1992, after the end of the East-West standoff. And Japan has yet to forge a diplomatic relationship with North Korea. We should indeed note that the war on the Korean Peninsula has not come to a formal conclusion, being halted only by a cease-fire agreement between north and south.

Despite the generally held image of deep historical ties among Japan and its continental neighbors, China and Korea, it is only very recently, historically speaking, that the three nations have entered normal diplomatic relationships. Thorny problems remain unresolved in the region, such as how to position Taiwan and North Korea within the framework of Northeast Asian diplomacy and regional cooperation. The six-party talks that began in 2003 to address the problem of North Korea’s nuclear development, with the participation of China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States as well, were an unprecedented regional framework when seen in this light. Even these talks, though, basically drew to a close when Pyongyang decided to continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Cooperation Stands Out in Currency, Economic Fields

Having covered the differences between the Southeast and Northeast Asian experiences, let me now turn to an overview of regional cooperation in the “broadly defined” East Asia.

East Asian cooperative ties have probably progressed farther in the area of currency issues than in any other area. As described above, the ASEAN+3 framework came into being as a result of moves to address the Asian currency crisis of 1997. The Chiang Mai Initiative originally signified a network of bilateral swap agreements among the 13 eventual members of ASEAN+3, but when they agreed to create a single multilateral arrangement in 2010, it made the regional cooperation aspect of this initiative even clearer.

Also in the economic field, East Asia has seen particularly energetic action in recent years in free-trade agreements and economic partnership agreements, which add investment and other aspects to trade ties. These trade agreements are epitomized by the FTA inked between ASEAN and China, which went into effect in 2010, and the Japan-ASEAN EPA, which kicked off in 2008 among Japan and five ASEAN members, including Singapore. Within the Southeast Asian body itself, the members are working toward the goal of an ASEAN economic community. Unlike the Chiang Mai Initiative, which is a multilateral arrangement among all the nations of East Asia, these FTAs and EPAs do not cover the entire region, focusing rather on specific partnerships like those between ASEAN and Japan or China. There are also schemes that go beyond the East Asian framework to include Oceania or the United States, such as APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP). There is also the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, a concept encompassing all of the above parties.

When it comes to trade, however, there are a variety of issues—such as currency exchange rates—that go beyond the tariffs and other factors associated with FTAs. An ever-growing portion of East Asia’s trade is intraregional. To energize this trade still further, Japan’s Institute for International Policy Studies recommended the creation of a common Asian currency in its 2009 report “Prospects for the Global Economic and Financial System in the 2030s.” But printing money remains closely associated with national sovereignty, and it is unlikely that we will see a unified currency in Asia in the near future—especially not now that we have witnessed the ongoing crisis in the euro zone.

The developments in the wake of the Asian currency crisis make it clear that cooperation in the economic field has served as the engine for regional cooperation in general in Asia. What, then, about the political sphere? As noted above, the ASEAN+3 relationship grew over time, getting its start in the 1997 crisis and leading in 2005 to the East Asia Summit. In 2011, Russia and the United States also took part in this annual gathering. As the geographic scope of this framework broadens, though, the force binding its members together is undeniably weakening, as is the momentum toward regional integration.

In the political context, security in particular is an area where the East Asian order is incomplete without the United States as a part of it. US military forces are deployed in Japan and South Korea, two nations in bilateral alliances with America, and the US Seventh Fleet is also a force in the region, giving the United States a very strong military presence in East Asia. ARF, the ASEAN Regional Forum, is one framework covering the entire Asia-Pacific region that addresses security issues. At present, though, it is difficult to describe ARF as anything more than a confidence-building endeavor.

A Need for Cooperation on All Levels

It is clear that East Asian regional cooperation has taken its most substantial form in the economic field, particularly in the area of currency matters. While frameworks do exist in the political arena, they do not do much beyond providing forums for regular discussions among the region’s actors. The upshot of this is that any regional integration we see in East Asia has basically been forged through economic dynamism, with political ties playing a trailing role. This is a very different picture from what we see in Europe, where political will has been the primary force driving moves toward European integration.

There is a tendency for observers to decry East Asia’s lagging progress in integration, compared with Europe. We must remember, though, that European integration fundamentally advanced within the military framework of NATO. If we attempt to map the East Asian experience onto the European model, it is clearly a far more difficult task, akin to creating an integrated community including Russia, with no NATO to guide the process. The gap between economic ties and security-related frameworks is the single greatest characteristic of regional integration in East Asia, as well as its main problem to address. It is also a point in which the region differs greatly from Europe, making that region inappropriate as a model to hold up when considering the way forward in East Asia.

What, then, are the prospects for the future course of regional cooperation in East Asia? I believe there are three levels to examine here. First is the level of economics. East Asia is today a growth center of the global economy, and intraregional economic unification is proceeding apace. Over the medium to long term, we should see the formation of cooperative ties to match this economic reality.

Second is the level of political and security issues. China’s rise as a military power is currently sparking tense situations in the East and South China Seas, and this tension may crop up more frequently in the future. Managing risk so as to prevent this tension from blossoming into military clashes or full-fledged warfare will be the most important task in this context. Maintaining military balance in the region and strict adherence to the international legal order will be key measures toward this end.

Third, the region’s countries face the pressing need to implement social security systems to handle their aging populations, as well as measures to combat pollution and other environmental problems. Regional cooperation to address these issues that all East Asian nations face in common will be a must. This cooperation will extend beyond economic support. It will include efforts to share wisdom toward the construction of needed systems, training of human resources, and other important joint work.

Regional cooperation is likely to advance over different timeframes on these three levels and to progress in different directions at times. It will be no simple task to harmonize efforts in these areas. But this is the reality we face in the area of regional cooperation: it is an honest reflection of the true state of affairs in East Asia.

 Regional Cooperation in Southeast and East Asia
Aug. 1967 Foreign ministers from five Southeast Asian nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) meet in Bangkok and declare their intent to establish ASEAN with the goals of (1) promoting economic growth and social and cultural development, (2) ensuring political and economic stability, and (3) cooperating to resolve various issues facing the region’s countries.
Aug. 1977 Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo sets forth the “Fukuda Doctrine,” based on principles including equal partnership between Japan and ASEAN.
Jan. 1984 Brunei joins ASEAN.
1990年 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad proposes the East Asian Economic Community, urging the region to move gradually toward deeper economic cooperation; his proposal goes unrealized due to US opposition.
Jul. 1995 Vietnam joins ASEAN.
Jul. 1997 Laos and Myanmar join ASEAN. The Asian currency crisis is touched off in Thailand.
Sep. 1997 The leaders of China, Japan, and Korea are invited to the ASEAN summit. The participants establish the Chiang Mai Initiative currency swap agreement.
Apr. 1999 Cambodia joins ASEAN, bringing membership to 10 nations.
Nov. 1999 The first ASEAN+3 summit takes place in Manila. The leaders issue the “Joint Statement on East Asia Cooperation,” agreeing to work together in economic, social, political, and other fields.
Dec. 2005 The first East Asia Summit is held in Kuala Lumpur, bringing together the ASEAN+3 nations, Australia, India, and New Zealand. Participants discuss ways to strengthen economic ties, as well as common intra- and transregional issues like terrorism, avian influenza, and energy issues, and agree to create a framework for multilateral dialogue.
Nov. 2011 The sixth East Asia Summit takes place in Bali, Indonesia, with the United States and Russia as official participants. With the “Declaration of the Sixth East Asia Summit on ASEAN Connectivity,” the leaders add connections with and within ASEAN as “a key priority area of cooperation” for all of East Asia.

(Originally written in Japanese in November 2012.)

diplomacy Asia politics East Asia TPP EAS ASEAN economy FTA Foreign Affairs EPA bilateral Southeast Asia regional cooperation multilateral summit currency crisis Chiang Mai Initiative