Thursday, April 5, 2012

Regional integration and elite power politics in East Asia

Recent developments have revealed the deepening contradiction between economics and politics in East Asian international relations.

On the one hand, cooperative mechanisms, especially those related to economic regional governance, have been enhanced. This is apparent in the expansion of currency swap agreements within the Chiang Mai Initiative, which have constituted a key regional response to the European fiscal crisis. It can also be seen in the new dynamics of free-trade negotiations that developed after the Obama administration renewed its push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move which in turn invigorated talks about China-Japan-South Korea, ASEAN+3 and ASEAN+6 FTAs.

At the same time, a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute survey of international arms transfers published this March showed some surprising results.

Amid an overall volume increase of 24 per cent, the world’s five largest importers of conventional weapons between 2007 and 2011 — India, South Korea, China, Pakistan and Singapore — are all in Asia. Given the presence of hotspots such as the Taiwan Strait and the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula, and in view of the securitisation of the maritime sphere, this trend should be taken seriously. Other recent events — such as the September 2010 clash between Beijing and Tokyo over the arrest of the captain of a Chinese fishing boat intercepted near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands — have revealed the inadequacy of isolating either economics or politics in regional analysis. The two cannot be separated if we are to gain a more complete understanding of regional dynamics in East Asia.

In view of such trends, prominent scholars have argued that the Asia Pacific’s post-war order is no longer tenable and have called for the establishment of a ‘Concert of Asia’ in order to divert the great powers from their current collision course. According to this school of thought, simple strategies of deterrence are inadequate and rising powers, especially China, need to be given more ‘space’ — that is, a legitimate role in the international relations of the Asia Pacific. This proposition also requires that Washington relinquish its primacy in the region.

But there is a major flaw in the conception of such a balance of power: the era of 19th-century European-style foreign politics is over. Foreign policies can no longer be made and decided upon among a small number of national elites. Trust among top leaders, even if they were to stay in power for sufficiently long periods of time — wishful thinking in itself — is insufficient for stable international relations. Instead, the formulation of foreign policy must account for domestic political constraints.

The contradiction between economics and politics and the tensions between policy elites and public opinion were evident when Beijing sought to diplomatically engage Japan in the East China Sea dispute in 2008. China’s attempt at formalising earlier tacit understandings between Chinese and Japanese elites — epitomised by Deng Xiaoping’s call for ‘shelving’ dispute politics — has ultimately failed. This was not only due to Japan’s uncompromising stand. It was also due to popular resistance — both among Chinese academics and the general public — to the Chinese leadership’s perceived weakness toward foreign demands.

Similar to calls for adjusted balances of power, the discourse of Asian regionalism also has a strong elite bias. While the former assumes that foreign policy can be conducted more or less autonomously from the domestic realm, the latter implicitly assumes that economic growth, spurred on by free trade and other related policies, has a trickle-down effect strong enough to maintain social cohesion and thereby legitimise incumbent political systems. Given the salient income disparities and other social and environmental problems in East Asia, however, it must be asked: what is actually being integrated, who should be cooperating and for what purpose?
To be sure, European regional cooperation and integration has been an elite project with the aim of economic competitiveness and prosperity at its core. But although economic development is a real priority for contemporary East Asian governments, prevailing circumstances during Europe’s 20th-century integration differ greatly from those of contemporary East Asia.

As a result of past and present development policies, Asia’s populations and economic and political power are now largely concentrated in a few urban centres.

This leads to the horizontal fragmentation of societies between their cities and the countryside, and to a vertical fragmentation among the few rich and an increasing number of poor city dwellers. China’s 240 million ‘migrant workers’ is but the most extreme example of this.

The question for East Asia is how ruling elites will maintain the cohesion of their societies given these recent trends. The answer will have crucial implications for the conduct of foreign and security policies, and with it the future of order in the Asia Pacific. If incumbent elites, be it for material gains or fear of ‘disorder’, cling to the status quo, top-down and bottom-up nationalism will inevitably continue to rise. This does not bode well for the future of East Asia, even if economic growth continues as expected.

This is not to deny that East Asia is coming together socially and economically — but understanding the social processes underlying economic and security policies depends on a deeper analysis of the foundation of domestic political legitimation, especially in times when economic growth alone is insufficient to achieve this end.
East Asia Forum. By Christian WirthResearch Fellow at Waseda University and Adjunct Lecturer at Sophia University, Tokyo.

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