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Overcoming Obstacles to East Asia Community
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By Wang Yusheng

As the 10-member Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) pledged last Saturday to build an ASEAN community by 2015 and approved a blueprint for a landmark charter to upgrade the 40-year-old group, there have also been talks about a broader based "East Asia community".

The concept of an East Asia community remains a beautiful ideal. In 1990, the second year after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum was established, the then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad proposed the "East Asia Essential Caucus". It did not become a reality due to the US' objections and Japan's recoil.

The past 16 years have witnessed great changes and new developments in East Asia.

Firstly, the economy has enjoyed sound development. The region's high growth rate with obvious continuity is undeniable. The average economic annual growth in East Asia from 1973 to 2003 was 8.5 percent, more than twice the global average of 3.5 percent.

The region's economy withstood the test of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, quickly recovering.

Many bilateral and sub-regional multilateral free trade agreements have emerged, one after another.

In 2004, the trade volume within the 10 ASEAN nations plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea accounted for 60 percent of the total trade in the region, while the region's trade with the rest of the world totaled 30 percent of the global trade volume.

Meanwhile, China's development has brought about unprecedented opportunities for East Asia.

In 2005, trade between China and ASEAN countries totaled US$130.4 billion, incurring a US$20 billion trade deficit for China.

Also in 2005, trade between China and South Korea reached a record high of US$100 billion while Sino-Japanese trade approached US$190 billion. In fact, Japanese exports to China from 2000 to 2004 increased by 142 percent.

Secondly, the Cold War political mentality has largely withered in the Asia-Pacific region.

The concept of "China Opportunity" is prevailing over that of "China Threat" as China's good neighbor diplomacy has won wide recognition. The so-called "Asian NATO" advocated by American and Japanese neo-conservatives no longer seems practical.

US allies are becoming more independent of the United States. South Korea no longer wants to play a role subordinate to the United States; it's exerting itself as a balancing force in the region.

Australia recently repeated that it does not have a "containing China" scheme and emphasized that China's rapid development, instead of becoming a threat, will be beneficial to Australia as well as to the whole world.

Meanwhile, other countries in Asia, which need to cooperate with the United States and Japan, do not want to become their pawns. As an observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) of China and Central Asian countries, India sees that it shares interests with China in further developing bilateral relations.

Thirdly, APEC, Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) and SCO have maintained their influence as role models. These organizations operate on the principles of independence, mutual benefit and cooperation. The countries have established partnerships rather than alliances with each other.

These partnerships are actually an advanced form of "soft power" that represents the common wishes of the people in the region and provides a reference point for an East Asia community.

Judging from all these facts, we can conclude that an East Asia community is not only a meaningful ideal but is based on objective conditions with practical applications and needs to be pursued.

However, we cannot be blind to the uncertain factors in East Asia. At the top of the list is the influence of the United States, driven by the superpower's three major concerns in East Asia.

First of all, the United States is worried about the emergence of a Japanese yen circulation zone or an Asian monetary fund, which could result in a tripartite confrontation of the yen, the US dollar and the euro to challenge the hegemony of the dollar.

When the financial crisis broke out in Asia in 1997, Japan made extensive efforts to gain Chinese support for its Asian Monetary Fund proposal. Immediately afterwards, an American diplomat responded that "the Asian financial crisis can be solved in any way except the Japanese solution of the Asian Monetary Fund".

Moreover, the United States worries that the APEC would nurture the East Asia Economic Caucus, which could develop into the East Asian community. Many senior American officials have repeated on many occasions that no organization can replace APEC or exclude the United States.

From the US standpoint, if China and Japan as well as Northeast Asia or East Asia unite to form an East Asia community, that may seriously challenge the US world peace strategy under American dominance, even shaking its global leadership role.

Lastly, the United States is worried that the peaceful development of "Chinese speed" may squeeze out its influence and dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States still believes that China is a country at "the strategic crossroad" that does not follow America's will.

However, its concerns are totally unnecessary. China advocates that the East Asia Summit (EAS) should be open and inclusive and that the United States is a very important country and an important partner of East Asia.

The US concerns are reasonable and its interest in the region is understandable. As a result of its concerns, the US has interfered in the workings of the East Asia Summit, pushed the participation of the countries which share so-called "democratic values", and encouraged Japan to seek leadership.

All this has prevented the East Asia community from materializing while serving to contain China and hinder cooperation between China and Japan.

Other factors have also hindered the development of an East Asia community.

One is that Japan is so eager to become the Asian leader that the deep-rooted Cold War mentality has remained strong in that country.

Meanwhile, from political and security perspectives, the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsular as well as the Taiwan issue is also hampering the development of an East Asia community.

At present, the six-party talks have reached some consensus and created a crisis control model different from the Iraqi crisis approach. It seeks a peaceful solution to North Korea nuclear build-up through dialogue instead of confrontation.

As for the Taiwan issue, the mainland's policies to promote cross-Straits economic and trade relations while seeking consensus with the United States for cross-Straits stability are working to weaken the separatists.

All in all, the positive elements are obviously part of the mainstream and are meeting the test of time while the negative ones are in decline.

Therefore, I hold an optimistic view of the future of an East Asian community, as the economic development gap among East Asian nations further narrows and the harmony and inclusiveness between them increase.

But to make an East Asian community a reality, the concept needs uninterrupted exploration. The achievement is a long way away with zigzags and hindrances.

But I believe that good efforts will pay off.

Wang Yusheng is a senior diplomat and Beijing researcher on international relations.

(China Daily January 16, 2007)

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