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In the alphabet soup of Asian regional organisations several new formations have floated to the surface since the 1980s, and their number has recently multiplied. To the extent that they have been noticed in the wider world, EAEC, ASEM, AFTA, ARFA, and ASEAN+3 have attracted little interest or analysis. Some commentators have dismissed them as ineffectual talk-shops, and others have condemned them as retrograde, anti-global attempts to foster East Asian separatism. But among even the Western commentators who said ASEAN needed to reinvent itself in the wake of the 1997-1999 economic crisis, is enough known about what inspires these new organisations?
A brief consideration of the history of East Asian regionalism suggests that its origins go back to the nineteenth century. ‘Asia for the Asians’ was a Japanese slogan before and during the Pacific War, and it was revived in Kyoto in 1995 when Japan and some representatives of the former Co-Prosperity Sphere countries met to commemorate a conference held in 1942 on the same theme. Since then, the idea has attracted leaders in several countries, not just the most vocal Southeast Asian proponents of Asian values. The Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, is a vocal supporter. Last April at the Beijing 2000 Asia Leaders Forum (organised by the Asia Australia Institute), the Chinese Foreign Minister described ASEAN+3 as ‘a new model for regional cooperation’ that not only offered openness, equality, and mutual benefit, but excluded the United States.
When the political analyst Samuel Huntington in 1993 and 1996 proposed a coming world divided on ‘civilisational’ or cultural lines, a non-official group of East Asians and others, including an Australian and a Bangladeshi, was already at work as the ‘Commission for a New Asia’, drafting a set of common aspirations. Then came ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting), AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Agreement), ARFA (Asian Regional Financial Arrangement), and ASEAN+3 (China, Korea, Japan). In all of them, the dividing lines between ASEAN and the rest of East Asia become more blurred, and the East/West boundaries were drawn more firmly as time went on. And all of them - in spite of Australia’s efforts in the late years of the Keating government and the early years of Howard to be included in ASEM, and since then to associate ASEAN with CER (Closer Economic Relations between Australia and New Zealand) - defined ‘Asia’ as excluding Australia. If the two Koreas unite, providing a further reason for American disengagement from the region, Australia could be, and could be seen to be, more than ever on its own.
In 1997, at the height of the economic crisis, Japan proposed an Asian Fund which was opposed by the United States, but which did not go away. At the Manila ASEAN+3 meeting in late 1999, a joint declaration for co-operation was produced, and the Asian Fund re-emerged as the Asian Regional Financial Arrangement. ARFA was further refined at meetings in Rangoon and Chiang Mai in May 2000. Its ostensible objective is to create a ‘repurchase market’, a network of currency swaps involving the 13 countries, that will head off future speculative attacks on regional currencies, something ASEAN currency swap agreements have proved incapable of doing. Underlying objectives include regional countries’ desire to challenge the perceived hegemony of the IMF, the United States, and the West in general over their economies and perhaps, on Japan’s part, to reassert its economic dominance of East Asia and its access to the region’s energy, raw materials, and labour.
The currency swap and repurchase arrangement proposed for the ASEAN countries involves adding Brunei to the $US 200 million fund set up in the 1970s between the original five members of ASEAN. It is proposed to increase it, in time, and make it available to the Indochina members. The breadth of income inequality between the richest and poorest of East Asians, however, makes realisation of a full regional currency plan or an Asian Monetary Fund impossible, at least for now. Observers inside and outside the region have expressed scepticism about ARFA as an appropriate response to the region’s problems. East Asia remains as unclear as ASEAN has always been about whether it seeks a free trade zone, a customs union, a common currency, or a cooperative security system. But the process will be incremental rather than a quick fix, and in this respect its model is ASEAN itself.
WATCHPOINT: Are negative comments about the new East Asian regionalism premature?
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AFG Venture Group is an Asia and Australia based corporate advisory and consulting firm with over 20 years experience in creating alliances, relationships and transactions in Australia, South East Asia and India; including a 15 year history of corporate and equities advisory in Australia, undertaking merger, acquisition, divestment, fund raising and consulting for private and public companies.
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