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
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
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
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
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
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
One is that Japan is so eager to become the Asian leader that
the deep-rooted Cold War mentality has remained strong in that
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
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
(China Daily January 16, 2007)