Why can't Asia get its act together? It's an old question, of course, and one that has already launched a thousand and more conferences. Yet the academics on parade today reckon there might be a way forward to clear the landmines that have for generations so limited progress on Asian multilateralism.
Their tentative answer -- fingers crossed -- is to exploit the highly useful framework behind the endless six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issues and trust that this might gradually lead to a genuinely cooperative atmosphere for wider regional discussion. Fair enough, but this is hardly a novel idea. Hard-pressed punters are unlikely to shell out on what is part of co-editor Francis Fukuyama's "forum on constructive capitalism" unless there is a lot more on offer.
So where is the beef? The answer lies largely with the detail of individual chapters rather than in the nebulous pol sci-speak of Fukuyama and co-editor Kent Calder, who make a pitch for "international relations generalists to combine with regional specialists to think about creative, insightful ways of stabilizing the region's political-economic architecture."
As expected, the economists and the historians go their separate ways. The economists zero in on the extraordinarily rapid growth record of the People's Republic of China and make the point that, since Beijing's manufactured exports are shipped and sold globally, often by foreign corporations embedded in China, this may well undercut rather than enhance regionalism. Problems too persist with the idea of free trade agreements as many governments are determined to protect local special interest groups, though for now at least, the U.S. has sufficient leverage to dissuade others from designing a closed Asian grouping. Nothing comparable to what has evolved into the European Union is yet on the cards and a major "organization gap" persists to leave east Asia without any real economic or political regional framework.
The historians make a different pitch. They refer time and again to Washington's "hub and spokes" Asia-Pacific structure that, since the San Francisco peace settlements of the early 1950s, has seen governments in Asia concentrating on dealing with the U.S. and often ignoring their neighbors. Yet it is far from clear whether this long-standing set of bilateral arrangements has reached its sell-by date when half a dozen territorial flash points remain to destabilize the region and the embryonic Asian-only talking shops have had relatively little impact to date.
The question of where the PRC might be going is central to many of the essays in "East Asian Multilateralism," though we hear little from the horse's mouth since no senior Chinese academic or diplomat is listed among the contributors. The overall mood is generally positive, even if assumptions on the future strength of the Chinese economy would have to be revised were a global recession to take hold and any realization of the hopes of Fukuyama and others that China might turn democratic could also reshape the guessing games on display here.
Equally, how the United States should attempt to deal with China and its many unknowns is clearly going to influence how Japan and others respond to Beijing. The crude contrast between containment or engagement gets a mugging but most authors see the George W Bush era as essentially one of wariness towards the PRC and therefore the active encouragement of closer cooperation by Tokyo within U.S.-led regional security affairs. In this context, the chapter by former ambassador Kazuhiko Togo's on Japan's search for a means to retain ties to Washington and simultaneously repair relations with east Asia deserves to be digested. His essay on Tokyo's current "conflict between power and identity" argues that active multilateralism in east Asia by Japan ought to be welcomed by the U.S. as Japan today is a nation that deserves to be trusted as a force for good in regional affairs.
The broad consensus behind "East Asian Multilateralism" is to recognize that major change is afoot in the region thanks to the emergence of China, the greater ambitions of Japan and enhanced economic integration everywhere. Yet paradoxically, the end result would appear to leave the United States to dominate business. Multilateralism, as presented here, would be an exploratory, open process where there would be room for all. The dream of a genuine Asian community appears to rest on maintaining a U.S.-Japan security presence -- doubtless that explains why there was no Chinese invitee to the academic conference in Washington that first prompted these useful essays.© Japan Today