Special Report: The Dawning Of 'Asia' In The 21st Century


Deborah Johnson

Sometimes change occurs almost imperceptibly. The ASEAN+3 Informal Summit in Manila in November 1999 (the third of such meetings) signalled such a change in the Asian region and in fundamental consciousness of 'Asia'.

Scholars, we are told, have traced the word 'Asia' back to 2,500 BC - to the language of Akkad in which äsü referred to the rising sun. However, despite the ancient etymology, consciousness in the minds of Asians themselves of 'Asia' as being more than a general geographic signifier really began to develop only in the twentieth century. An actual Asian regional unit has thus far been 'pie in the sky' imagining. Now at the beginning of the 21st century the idea of an 'Asia', or 'East Asia', seems poised to become a more institutionalised reality. How has this come about?

In 1990 in the post-cold war backwash, concerns with growing US and EU dominance (and domestic political priorities) led the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed to propose the concept of an East Asian Economic Grouping (EAEG). It received a lukewarm response from ASEAN members (for they had not been consulted). Others in the region also responded with little interest. In part, this was because of some uncertainty over the type of regional association that was intended. Following an Indonesian suggestion it was redefined as a loose consultative economic caucus, the EAEC. Despite some vigorous Malaysian advocacy, the idea seemed doomed to a stillbirth.

However, several factors have since converged to give it life:

1) ongoing concerns over US global economical and political dominance; 2) ASEAN-led Asia/Europe (ASEM) biennial meetings in Bangkok (1996) and London (1998) and a coalescence of Asian regional cooperation; 3) increasing economic clout and market interdependence in East Asia; 4) disenchantment with the APEC forum; and, 5) the unanticipated 1997 Asian financial and economic crisis, which convinced many Asian leaders of the need to forge a regional effort to restructure the international financial architecture.

The EAEC transmuted into ASEAN+3 now seems set to realise a new Asian unity. Ironically at the meeting Dr Mahathir did not attend (due to pending national elections), the idea was given its greatest endorsement to date. Asian leaders agreed to 'enhance dialogue... [and] strengthen cooperation [towards] ... enhancing East Asian collaboration.' Philippines President Estrada also spoke of working hard to fulfil the lofty dream of 'an East Asian common market, one East Asian currency and one East Asian community'. An East Asia Vision Group (EAVG), established at the suggestion of Korean President, Kim Dae-Jung, is to report its recommendations at the 7th ASEAN Summit in Brunei in 2001. At the suggestion of China, the ASEAN-China Japan and ROK Dialogue of Finance and Central Bank Deputies was launched earlier in March 1999. Mahathir's idea of an Asian Monetary Fund is being studied.

'Asia' is now organising to present a unified face and voice in world affairs. It may mean that the US and Europe will not be able to have things their own way. But it will also mean that others may find themselves remaining on the fringes, including Africans, Eastern Europeans and South Americans. On the outside also may be West, Central and South Asians as well as Australasians.

WATCHPOINT: Will East Asian countries be able to overcome their intra-regional disputes and form a new Asian unity?


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