Accidents of History - Why Asia will not Follow the EU's Regionalisation Model

There remains a stark contrast between the levels of integration amongst EU member states and the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Professor of Political Science Douglas Webber, co-editor of a new volume on regional integration in Europe and East Asia to be released later this year, explains why regionalisation has historically "occurred very unevenly in both space and time", and why the post-war European and East Asian experiences have been so different.

by Douglas Webber, David Hayhurst
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

While globalisation issues have captured the most attention in recent years, regionalisation, understood as the intensification of interactions across the borders of geographically proximate states, has been a no less powerful process in the post-Cold War era. Trade agreements linking neighbouring states have proliferated.

Indeed, 80% of existing regional trade agreements have been negotiated since 1990. More and more regional organisations with varying degrees of political ambition have also been founded. At the same time, pre-existing regional organisations such as the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to new political projects demanding higher levels of international cooperation.

However, the contrast between the extent of political, social and economic integration amongst the 25-member EU, versus the ten ASEAN states, remains very strong. The EU represents the world's most fully integrated political region, devoting far more human and fiscal resources to that end than its Asian rough equivalent. Even in issues such as liberalisation of trade, ASEAN members have made slower or less progress than much younger pacts, such as NAFTA or the Mercosur in North and South America respectively.

On the whole, regional political integration - defined as the negotiation, adoption and implementation of common policies by the governments of geographically proximate states - is a phenomenon that has, in the words of INSEAD Professor of Political Science, Douglas Webber, and Director of Intellectual Exchange of the Asia-Europe Foundation, Bertrand Fort, "occurred very unevenly in both space and time".

Unhelpfully for observers of global trends, research into regional political integration tends to display a Euro-centric bias, despite the increasingly obvious fact that the EU experience has been a very singular phenomenon in recent world history.

Regional Integration in Europe and East Asia: Convergence or Divergence?, published by Routledge later this year, aims to correct this bias. In the first of two concluding chapters, co-editor Webber argues that the pre-eminent theories used to explain integration in Europe fail to offer adequate explanations for stark cross-regional differences.

He attributes the ability of the EU's founding states to succeed in their earliest integrationist efforts in the 1950s to a highly specific combination of factors, partly international, partly regional and partly related to domestic political circumstances in the two especially key states, France and Germany.

These gave rise to a temporary "window of opportunity" for initial common market integration, and were very conducive to the development of the strong supranational EU institutions in evidence today. As Webber explains, there was a host of reasons why this spirit of commonality has not been replicable in post-Second World War East Asia. The Cold War divided capitalist Japan and communist China, rather than uniting them in the face of a common external threat as was the case with France and Germany.

Another critical factor was Japan's inability to play a leading political role in non-communist East Asia, thanks to its wartime record in the region, its difficulties and tardiness in coming to terms with this record, the huge disparity of economic prowess and power separating it from the other non-communist countries, and these countries' consequent reluctance to contemplate closer cooperation with Japan.

Political integration amongst non-communist East Asian nations was thereby confined to Southeast Asia, giving rise to ASEAN. Whereas in Western Europe Germany was both big and rich enough to serve as a regional paymaster of integration (but was nonetheless balanced by France), ASEAN's largest member by far, Indonesia, was much too poor and its richest member, Singapore, was much too small to act as an effective catalyst for greater regional integration.

Stay tuned to Knowledge for a review on the forthcoming book... Regional Integration In Europe And East Asia: Convergence And Divergence, Douglas Webber & Bertrand Fort, editors (Routledge/Warwick Studies in Globalisation).


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