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Home Theories for East Asian Cooperation Political Challenges and Political Will
Political Challenges and Political Will:
Toward a Sustainable Process of Building an East Asian Community
QIN Yaqing
China Foreign Affairs University
Symposium “Steps Towards Building an East Asian Community"
Tokyo, 2007-9-28
I. Introduction
In November, 2004, the leaders of ASEAN, China, Japan, and the ROK accepted the proposal made by the East Asian Vision Group (EAVG) and agreed to take the building of an East Asian Community (EAC) as the long-term goal. This is great progress in the regional process, showing the determination of the nations to work for peace, stability, and prosperity through the joint effort to build a regional community. In 2005, the first East Asian Summit (EAS) was held in Malaysia and 16 countries were present, including ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India.
The first EAS marked a further step forward in the process of East Asian regionalism, providing an important forum for strategic dialogue. At the same time, the ASEAN+Three (APT or 10+3) process has continued to move ahead, serving as the main vehicle for East Asian regional integration and carrying out many cooperative activities in numerous functional fields. [1]
East Asian regionalism has been making great progress. At the same time, it is at a crossroads. On the one hand, we see strong dynamics that has been pushing forward regional cooperation and encouraging nations in this region to produce initiatives and ideas. The 1997 financial crisis, as many used to believe, would derail the East Asian regional economic development, but in fact the post-crisis dynamic has been even stronger, pushing forward the continued growth of the region. On the other hand, serious obstacles and challenges exist. In the past few years, many have been brought up, for example, the enormous diversity in the region, the low level of institutionalization, and the lack of spillover effects from economic cooperation to other fields. Disagreement also exists. Opinions have deferred both before and after the first EAS and people have debated over such questions as whether East Asia should have a geographical limit and how outside players should participate in the regional process. [2] This paper tries to diagnose the political challenges, which, if not properly responded to, would constitute hurdles to the process of the East Asian community building.
 
II. Political Challenges to East Asian Regionalism
 
There are various political challenges to the East Asia's effort to build a regional community. I have identified four, namely, differences among East Asian nations about how East Asian community should be built , less cohesiveness of ASEAN as the driving force, the competition between China and Japan as the major powers of the region, and the threats that exist in the traditional security areas. I will discuss them in turn.
1. Differences among East Asian nations
The past few years have seen some erosion of the consensus that was formed during the 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis. Differences among East Asian nations have surfaced and are reflected by the disagreement concerning various aspects of the regional community building.
 
First, the disagreement on the definition of the region. In the last two years since it was decided to hold the East Asian Summit, the debate has been going on as to how to define the region. There are mainly two different ideas. Some argue that the region has been clearly defined by the East Asian Vision Group (EAVG) as including 10+3. Others believe that it should expand to include other nations such as India, Australia, New Zealand, and more. In 2001, for example, the then Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi put forward the idea of “enlarged East Asian community," which would include Australia and New Zealand. [3]
The insistence on 10+3 is based on the belief that certain geographical limit should be followed to make the process effective and substantial. The advocate for expansion and inclusion of outside powers may want to establish a larger region, which might be more a political concept than a mere geographical consideration. The disagreement reflects different ideas and approaches about how East Asian regionalism should go forward. At the same time, it perhaps implies consideration on power relations in the region, for example, balancing the rising China or keeping a certain balance of power. Although the first East Asian Summit was held after all sides had agreed with the ASEAN consensus on its membership, the disagreement is only shelved rather than solved.
Second, the disagreement on the leading force for the regional process. East Asian regionalism has been led by ASEAN, a group of small and medium-sized nations, which started the process and set up its rules and norms. [4] Since 1997, the process has been enlarged to include China, Japan, and South Korea, and the APT mechanism was thus created. Together with it there has been the debate as to who would lead the process. Some argue that the European integration process has been successful because two major powers on the European continent, namely France and Germany, have played the crucial role and provided the leadership. The situation in East Asia differs from Europe in that it lacks effective leaders. With the involvement of the Plus Three countries, should China, or Japan, or South Korea, or the three together, play the leading role?
In 2005 EAS was held. The leadership debate has moved beyond the mere argument about the lack of major power leadership. Now that the two processes, APT and EAS, are going together in the region, what functions and roles should they play respectively? EAS, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and India, seems to illustrate the nature of East Asia's open regionalism. [5] APT, on the other hand, continues to work at substantial cooperation. At the 10+3 Summit and EAS, the roles of APT and EAS were defined respectively as the main vehicle for the community building and a forum for strategic dialogue. But another round of debate seems to be undergoing since then: Which will play a more important role and whether the EAS should be strengthened to provide the major platform?
Thus, the leadership debate has been along two tracks, one being which player or players should lead, and the other being which process, APT or EAS, should play an more important role in the regional process. The debate is far from completed.
Third, the disagreement on institutionalization. East Asian regionalism is characterized by its low level of institutionalization and informality, which have been said to be a special feature of the ASEAN Way. [6] In the past several decades, this informal style has helped to bring together nations in the region and to maintain the process of prosperity and progress, especially when we consider the complexity and diversity that exist almost in every aspect of life in East Asia. To some extent, without following the ASEAN Way, it would be impossible for East Asian nations to cooperate in such a successful way.
Along the rapid development of East Asian regionalism, particularly with the decision made by the APT leaders to take the building of an East Asian Community as a long-term goal, institutionalization has been brought up again as an important topic. On the one hand, some believe that the low level of institutionalization in East Asian regional process is more beneficial because it has worked. On the other hand, some warn that European regionalism is rule-based and East Asian regionalism should be more institutionalized. [7] When East Asian regionalism is at a lower stage, loose arrangement is more beneficial; but as it develops, it should have more formal institutions so as to provide binding effect on nations concerned. The ASEAN Secretariat has complained many times that the low level of institutionalization makes implementation of APT summits' decisions and important measures extremely difficult. The apparent disagreement is on whether a high level of institutionalization may create the democratic deficit as the Europeans have done, but the underlying worry is perhaps more about erosion of national sovereignty.
These disagreements show that consensus on the roadmap for building an East Asian community is yet to be reached. Sometimes, we prefer to use the European model as a term of reference, but in fact the East Asian approach is very different. Some may argue that Europe five decades ago was similar and even worse. But one thing is worth particular attention: European regionalism, supported by the United States, started after WWII, when those European nations were all allies and needed only to overcome the historical memories, while in Asia today we have both bitter historical memories and present distrust to overcome, and the United States is somewhat suspicious and hesitant. This is a fact to deal with and not something to complain about.
2. Less Cohesiveness of ASEAN
 
A distinctive feature of East Asian cooperation shown in the past is the ASEAN leadership. ASEAN has played the key role in setting in motion the regional process and kept it moving on. Many of the norms and rules have been formulated by following the ASEAN Way.
This leadership has been shaped by ASEAN's continuous efforts in strengthening its own cohesiveness and building up its capacity. Bangkok Declaration in 1967 demonstrated a strong collective will to cooperate in the post-colonial and cold-war era. In 1976, the 1st ASEAN Summit adopted Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which filled this regional “association" with substantive norms. In 1993, the ASEAN Free Trade Area was launched, signaling the initiation of its economic integration. In 1995, with Vietnam being accepted as its member, ASEAN overcame the hurdle of ideological differences and realized the dream of a “one Southeast Asia." [8] In 1997, the Asian Financial Crisis led to the formation of the APT mechanism. Since then, the concurrence of ASEAN Summit, ASEAN Plus One Summit and ASEAN Plus Three Summit in ASEAN countries has clearly indicated ASEAN's cohesiveness and leadership in regional cooperation. The year of 2004 witnessed the signing of Bali Concord II, which not only sped up ASEAN integration by building ASEAN Community with three pillars, political, economic, and socio-cultural, but also strengthened the political will of its member countries to collectively manage challenges of globalization and regionalization in a new century.
The ASEAN leadership has been shaped by its conscious effort in norm-construction and agenda-setting in regional cooperation. TAC, the Declarations of Conduct of Parties at South China Sea (DOC) and the ASEAN way of consensus, comfort, friendly consultation and non-interference have been accepted by big powers in the region.
In the last few years, however, ASEAN started to show some signs of less cohesiveness. First, it seems that there lacks a strong leadership within ASEAN itself. The old ASEAN five used to lead its development. But now some didn't fully recover from the disaster brought about by the Asian Financial Crisis and still suffer from economic difficulties; some have experienced domestic political instability or non-traditional security threats. As a result, cohesiveness has become a serious issue for ASEAN nations to consider.
Second, cohesiveness of ASEAN has also been weakened by their differences concerning the EAS membership and pattern. The original design of EAS was to replace APT as a long-term measure to build East Asian community. However, who would participate in EAS became a disputed issue, which in fact delayed its first meeting. Should EAS be 13, 10+3, 10+3+3, 10+6 or 10+N? It actually boils down to the key issues of leadership as well as the architect of East Asian community. Though ASEAN members believe that they should be one 10 instead of ten 1s among many, they differ in their ideas of “East Asia" and the community. Is there a geographic boundary for East Asia? What norms should the community building be based on? The differences and confusion on this issue have no doubt weakened ASEAN cohesiveness and its driving role, thus posing a challenge to East Asian community building.
A dynamic regional process needs a more cohesive ASEAN at the driving seat. Hopefully, the ASEAN Charter to be adopted by ASEAN Summit later this year will increase the cohesiveness of ASEAN. The Charter symbolizes a strong political will to “transform ASEAN into a stronger, more united and effective organization." It will strengthen rules and institutions, streamline organizations and decision-making procedures and empower ASEAN Secretariat. And more importantly, it will ensure more rapid and deeper integration of ASEAN community and ASEAN's driving seat in all regional processes. [9] The Charter, if well adopted and implemented, could enhance the cohesiveness of ASEAN and strengthen its leading role in East Asian community building. And a more cohesive ASEAN is in a better position to taking the driving seat of East Asian regional integration.
3. Competition between China and Japan
There is deep misperception and distrust between China and Japan. The number of Chinese people who have friendly feelings towards Japan has declined sharply since the end of 1980s; and the same thing happened in Japan.[10] The demonstrations in 2005 against Japan's revisions of history text books were the largest and first nation-wide demonstrations in China in recent years and China-Japan relations plunged to their lowest point since 1972 when the two countries established official diplomatic relationship.
From time to time, the Japanese right-wing forces have tired to deny war crimes and the sufferings the war caused to the Asian people, which often result in rage and hostility of the victims of that war. The disputes over East China Sea and the intense contention for “Angarsk-Daqing Line" are also signs of distrust between the two countries. The biased and sensational reports of some media and the outrage of citizens had no doubt contributed to the deepening of misperception and distrust. All these factors unfortunately fell into a vicious circle and, to a great extent, shaped the Sino-Japanese distrust and competition.
The structure of international relations is fundamentally a cultural or ideational structure and misperception can incur high costs. The material capabilities of a country are interpreted by others through perception and interaction. The self-reinforcing circle of misperception and distrust has led to the Japanese interpretation of China's rise as a threat. China has witnessed very rapid economic and social development since the early 1990s with annual GDP increase of about 8-10%. However, almost at the same period of time, Japan had 10-year economic recession. Last year, China became the world's 5th biggest economy. This is the first time ever since the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 that China got that close to Japan in terms of material power. In international politics, the rise of a power is often regarded as a challenge and threat to the original order and the original dominant power. Therefore, Japan seems to be quite sensitive to China's military and space development.
Value-diplomacy is one of the four pillars of the foreign policy of Shinzo Abe's administration. Japan has engaged itself in advocating universally-recognized values in regional cooperation, forming “value alliance" with US, India and Australia, and shaping “the arc of freedom and prosperity" along the outer edge of Euroasia continent. These efforts together with its bid for a standing position of UN Security Council are part of Japan's pursuit of a “normal state" and comprehensive power. But such efforts may well be interpreted as insincere means of competition, as instrument to achieve other ends, and as big sticks to silence others. East Asia is a region with great diversity, where regional cooperation is at a very early stage and therefore fragile, where common grounds must be consolidated and expanded, and where differences should be overcome and at least shelved. Under such circumstances, the over-emphasis on a single, universal model of value system can be quite divisive.
The competition between the two countries is well reflected in East Asian regional processes. The ASEAN way versus “universally-recognized values" is an example in this respect. In the 1980s, the flying-geese pattern put Japan at the front of economic growth of East Asia; in the 1990s, the China-ASEAN FTA arrangement, China's earlier accession to TAC and China's positive role in shaping APT made China-ASEAN partnership more substantive and ahead of other 10+1 relations.[11] This competition could be quite benign, for it could push forward the regional process. However, due to the relations between the two countries, the competition has had a conflictual tone, which is detrimental to the regional cooperation.
Accounting for nearly 85 percent of East Asian economic activity, China and Japan undoubtedly are two important players in East Asia and thus their relationship is key to the building of an East Asian community. The competition originated from misperception and distrust will not only harm bilateral dialogue and cooperation, but also make it more difficult to further East Asian regional integration.
3. Traditional Security Issues
 
A regional community is first of all a security community. In East Asia, thanks to the efforts to carry out multilateral regionalism, there has been no major armed conflict among ASEAN member nations since 1967 and among ASEAN+3 nations since 1997. But traditional threats continue to exist and, if not well managed, could become serious problems for the region.
Territorial disputes. Since 1960s, territorial disputes have surfaced in South China Sea. Since 1970s, the territorial disputes over South China Sea, ranging from civilian activities and economic development in controversial areas to sporadic and minor military skirmishes, emerged increasingly as a crucial problem intimidating regional stability. 
Committed to easing the situation, China and ASEAN adopted the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, which was viewed as a promising sign of a peaceful resolution. However, the declaration is on a non-binding base. The follow-up DG Meeting and Joint Working Group have not worked out any substantial measures to implement the Declaration. And it turns out to have limited constraints on the parties' behavior, especially when their important national interests are involved. At a crucial time for East Asian community building, this could shed shadow to and cast uncertainties for East Asian cooperation.
East China Sea disputes involve two interrelated issues between China and Japan—the East China Sea continental shelf and Diaoyu Islands. After the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force in 1994, divergence between China and Japan concerning the continental shelf of the East China Sea became sharper. China stands for the equitable principle, while Japan prefers the equidistant “median line." In recent years, both China and Japan have started oil and gas explorations in the East China Sea area. Although several rounds of consultations have been held on the East China Sea oil exploitation, joint development in the area is still an unsolved problem.
 
Taiwan Strait. Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan is China's core national interest. Nobody across the Taiwan Strait could afford to see “Taiwan's independence." However, since Chen Shuibian became the leader of the island in 2000, he has initiated a successive provocative measures, including the remarks on “Taiwan independence," the attempt to hold a referendum and formulate a “new constitution," and the decision to cease the operation of the National Unification Council and the application of the National Unification Guidelines, to test the tolerance of mainland China and attitudes of key countries in the world. Recently, the most blatant provocative measure is the proposed referendum on and the application for UN membership in the name of Taiwan, which is viewed as a direct step intended to change the status quo across the Strait and causes a great disturbance in the region. 
China has demonstrated repeatedly its strong political will to safeguard its sovereignty and national integrity. Any action leading to a separate Taiwan will not be tolerated and create problems for the stability of the region.
Nuclear crisis of the Korean Peninsular. Since the end of the Cold War, the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsular has become one of the most serious challenges to regional security of Northeast Asia. If the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) should have nuclear weapons, it would (1) break down the regional nuclear balance and probably lead to a nuclear arms race in East Asia; (2) set a big obstacle to the unification process of the Korean Peninsula; (3) become a potential hot spot of conflict. DPRK nuclear issue actually results from the hostility and confrontation between DPRK and the United States. 
China has played an important role in initiating and keeping the six-party talks on. Up to now, the negotiations of the six-party talks have made good progress, which reflects more consensuses and more confidence among the parties involved. And now it has entered the phase of “Action for Action" and DPRK and the United States are negotiating for specific actions. However, there is still a long way to go for the final solution of this problem. And how to develop a more institutionalized mechanism so as to build everlasting security and stability on the Korea Peninsula is an even more complicated issue. Yet it is of critical importance to the building of an East Asia of peace, prosperity and progress.
III. Political Will for a Sustainable Regional Process
East Asian regionalism is at the initial stage. It is still quite weak and fragile. Considering the diversity in this region, it is natural to have disagreements and differences. We must admit this fact. Moreover, it is impossible to change it overnight. How to maintain the momentum of the regional cooperation and intensify the efforts for community building despite these differences is crucial at the present. The key is political will on the part of all East Nations who are committed to an East Asian community. We must pool up at least sufficient political will to maintain the momentum of regional cooperation and integration. This should be reflected in the following aspects.
First, there must be sufficient political will to maintain the regional cooperation process. Since East Asia does not have the strong legalistic foundation as Europe and does not have a clear power structure as North America, East Asian multilateral regionalism is primarily a process-oriented one: More often than not, keeping the process going is the most important work. We must remember that the process itself is of great significance, for the process of building an East Asian Community is valuable for confidence building and suspicion reduction, for norm making and learning, and for expansion of common interests and convergence of expectations. Only by maintaining the process at this initial stage can we have the hope to achieve more tangible results in the future.
The key argument here is clearly that the process matters. When we say that the process matters, we do not merely mean that the process is important because the rules and norms it produces matter, but that much of the time the process itself is the focus. Once nations are in the process, they are integrating and being integrated. For East Asia, where diversity is so conspicuous, the regional process itself is often the end as well as the means. The process-focused regional multilateralism in East Asia, despite its multilayered and even overlapping mechanisms, helps maintain regional stability and promote economic cooperation through extension of norms and socialization of major powers. It is the process that has woven a regional web entangling all concerned as stakeholders. This may be called soft institutionalism, which pays great attention to process maintenance and trust building thereof. For the purpose of process maintenance, it is important that nations in the region identify our common interests and expand our common ground rather than take divisive measures; it is important to help ASEAN to enhance its cohesiveness and realize its goal of an ASEAN community so that it can play the important role of being at the driving seat.
Second, there must be sufficient political will, especially on the part of major powers to work together, to settle disputes through consultation and dialogue. In this respect, major players' self -restraint is indispensable. The agreement that ASEAN should take the leading role and sit in the driving seat is not mere rhetoric. Neither China nor Japan, for example, can take the lead, for it could start a malign spiral of competition and increase the level of suspicion and distrust. Their self-restraint and support for the leading role of ASEAN is a practical measure to hold the regional process together. Community building, by definition, rejects the hard use of hard power, while it does need the clever and smart use of power and influence to move it forward.
This means that we should make tenacious efforts to develop good relations between China and Japan. In this respect, relations between China and Japan are crucially important. In the past few years, voices at various conferences in our region have expressed worries about the relations between the two countries and hopes that China and Japan should improve relations. It is a general belief that tension and hostility between the two countries hinders the regional cooperation. The visit of the former Japanese Prime Minister Abe to China last October and the joint statement by the leaders of the two countries are good signs, and the visit of the Chinese Premier and other top leaders to Japan have made further improvement, but the relations are still very fragile. Malign competition between China and Japan for regional leadership could destroy East Asian regionalism.
In addition, the political will conducive to community building means that integrating rather than containing or balancing should be the way to a community, especially major powers like China and Japan. Very often, balancing and even containing would come to the mind. Especially when China is developing fast, various ideas of balancing have come out and policy is sometimes made based on such ideas. But balancing China, or India in a similar sense, is highly risky. China is not the Cold War Soviet Union and is hard to be defined as an enemy. It is China's own will to join the process and it is the change of identity on the part of China that serves as an important variable that has made the region more stable and prosperous than before. China's rapid development has provided more opportunities for the nations in the region. Australia, for example, hopes to join the regional process for the gain it can make from the strong economic dynamic rather than for balancing China. Integrating is a much more preferred means to build a community, as the expansion of ASEAN to include Vietnam and Laos has shown. Cold-war strategic thinking of balancing and counter-balancing would fail East Asian regionalism and push the region back to a Cold War scenario, something nobody would like to see.
Third, there must be sufficient political will to commit ourselves to negotiation and dialogue for solving existing problems and disputes. Territorial disputes, for example, are highly sensitive issues and have complicated domestic backgrounds. Other traditional security issues, such as nuclear crisis and non-proliferation, have shown similar complexity. It is impossible to solve such issues overnight. To avoid escalation and worsening of the regional situation, it is a must that all parties concerned commit themselves to peaceful settlement and to continued efforts to negotiate. In due time, institutionalized mechanisms should be established to maintain stability and reduce hostility.
IV. Conclusion
East Asia is a dynamic region and cooperation among nations has been fruitful. East Asian regionalism, when the building of a regional community has been accepted as our long-term goal, has now comes to a crossroads. The tension between the dynamic to move forward towards integration and the complexity of issues has made the political will of nations a crucial factor for the community building.
The recent improvement of Sino-Japanese relations shows what an important role political will can play in bilateral relations. At the same time, the disagreement on the definition of the region, the low level of institutionalization, and the sluggish spillover effect—all indicates that the political will is not up to the expectation and falls short of the practical need in East Asia.
Just a few years ago, people had a lot of doubt about an East Asian community. When the EAVG put forward the idea, it was even taken as a rosy dream. Today, it has been a very much accepted term used on various occasions and a common goal to work for. This is why we should be optimistic about our region's future. At the same time, we need to understand that East Asian regionalism is weak and fragile, that the process is of ultimate importance at this stage of regional cooperation, and that great care should be taken to make the region progress move towards a more peaceful and more prosperous East Asia.


See the two declarations adopted at the First East Asian Summit, http://news.sina.com.cn/w/2005-12-14/22427708923s.shtml.
[2] Yeo Lay Hwee, “The Nature and Future of East Asian Regionalism," in Zhang Yunling, ed. Emerging East Asian Regionalism: Trend and Response, Beijing: World Affairs Press, 2005, pp. 15-33.
[3] Qin Huasun, Wang Shunzhu, and Gu Yuanyang, eds., Roadmap for Asian Regional Cooperation, Beijing: Shishi Press, 2006, p. 49.
[4] Archaya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asi, London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
[5] The conditions are: 1) join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; 2) agree to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; and 3) have substantial relations with ASEAN.
[6] Archaya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia.
[7] Qin Hausun, Wang Shunzhu, and Gu Yuanyang, eds. Roadmap for Asian Regional Cooperation, pp. 54-55.
[8] Jusuf Wanandi: “ASEAN Future Challenges and the Importance of an ASEAN Charter," ASIEN 100 (Juli 2006), S. 85-87.
[9] Tommy Koh, Walter Woon, Andrew Tan, and Chan Sze-Wei, “Charter Makes ASEAN Stronger, more United and Effective," The Strait Times, 8 August 2007.
[10] Lu Wen: “The Current Situation of Sino-Japanese Relations and the Role of Media," Journal of Japan Studies, No.1, 2006. pp.17-22.
[11] Interview with young diplomats from ASEAN countries, Beijing, July 25, 2007.