Hegemonies and "Historic Accidents" - Interview with Political Science Prof. Douglas Webber, Asia Campus

Professor of Political Science Douglas Webber discusses his latest research on the striking differences in political and economic integration between East Asia and the EU. He describes China's efforts to increase its regional influence, why old animosities are so hard to overcome, and how the evolution of the EU is an "historic accident" that hardly guarantees ever-closer integration amongst its members in the future.

by Douglas Webber
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Knowledge: Have you noticed recent overtures by China to become a regional "hegemonic" major power on a more political or diplomatic front, similar to the role that many feel Germany has long adopted regarding the EU?

DW: China has been an active supporter of recent efforts to forge closer relations between states in East Asia. This behaviour fits in with the overall thrust of its 'peaceful rise' diplomacy aimed at boosting China's international influence while reassuring other states that its goals are benign and maintaining a stable regional environment, which is important for China's continued economic growth.

Through closer Asian integration, China wants to improve its access to markets and sources of important raw materials and natural resources for its economic development, assure neighbouring states of its good intentions and dissipate fears that they may entertain related to the growth of Chinese power, and counter American influence in the region. It wants to exercise greater influence within the region without, of course, being seen or feared as an actual or prospective 'hegemonic' power.

K: You also focus on the "regional paymaster" role long played by Germany, which still makes much higher net contributions to the EU budget than any other EU member. You state that Indonesia is still far too poor for this, despite being by far the biggest economy in the ASEAN. Are there any indications of ASEAN making formal overtures to incorporate the "+3" (China, Japan and South Korea) bigger, richer players? Do you see any indications of any Asian nation becoming willing to adopt a role similar to Germany's in the foreseeable future, whether as an ASEAN member or through some other process?

DW: Informally, this 'paymaster' role was played for a long time in Southeast Asia by Japan, through its development aid budget or ad hoc assistance of the kind it gave during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Owing to Japan's chronic economic stagnation, it has become less able and willing to play this role.

China may be starting to compete with Japan in this domain - it has offered ASEAN member states a range of unilateral trade concessions to 'sweeten' an ASEAN-China free trade agreement that it is supposed to come into effect by 2010. Much development aid in Southeast Asia is targeted at the Mekong Basin countries (i.e., Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), which belong to ASEAN's poorest members.

K: A recent growth in interest in closer regional integration, evidenced in recent initiatives such as the ASEAN+3 negotiations. You appear to see this as indicating an increased concern in the region that China must be integrated more fully in a comprehensive regional framework.

DW: That's correct, although it is not the only reason why interest in regional integration has grown in Asia. However, the other countries do have rather ambivalent attitudes on this issue. They want closer integration to 'tame' China rather than increase its influence. They want therefore to keep this process under their control. Hence most ASEAN members want to ensure that the annual 'East Asian Summit' meeting currently being mooted is chaired by ASEAN and not by any of the +3.

There are also differences of opinion among the 10 ASEAN+3 states as to whether other states - notably India, Australia and New Zealand - should not also be invited to participate in such an institution. These strivings also have their roots in concerns, also American concerns, that China's growing power in the region should be balanced.

K: Are there uniquely Asian hindrances for further integration, such as Japan's relative reluctance to account for wartime atrocities to the extent that Germany did? Do you sense a regional inability to overcome often centuries-old animosities, even for a perceived common good (e.g., China vs. Vietnam, many states vs. Japan, etc.)?

DW: Yes, these hindrances exist and they are very high. History, especially the history of Japan's invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s, the Pacific War, and the Cold War with its legacies of a divided Korea and China, cast a long and dark shadow over international relations in Asia. Partly as a consequence of democratization (Taiwan), the search for alternative ideologies of regime legitimation (China) and fears relating to the rise of China (Japan), nationalism is a powerful and growing force in the region.

Inter-state tensions are exacerbated by rival claims for sovereignty over offshore islands and rocks thought to sit atop valuable supplies of natural resources (oil and natural gas). Asia has many 'powder-kegs' that could easily be detonated to unleash destructive inter-state conflicts. Growing economic interdependence alone will not be sufficient to ensure the region's peaceful further development. Far-sighted leadership and statesmanship will also be required - and not too much of it is in evidence.

K: Has the creation and subsequent enlargement and more intense integration of the EU been an "historic accident" that might be inherently impossible to transfer to any meaningful extent in any other area of the world?

DW: I fear yes. That is not to say that there is not or will not be (closer) regional integration in other parts of the world. But it is likely to be much 'looser' and hence less likely to be crisis-resistant or to develop a powerful 'peace-making' effect than it is or has in Europe. Nor, at the latest since the most recent enlargement into post-Communist Europe, can closer integration in Europe be taken for granted. European integration may now have reached its 'high water mark'.

If there is closer integration, then it is much more likely to take place among certain subgroups of members, organized around a Franco-German core, than among all the current 25 member states. The current difficulties concerning the ratification of the new draft European treaty or constitution gives us a foretaste of what may be to come.

K: China has long responded angrily to foreign criticism of its human rights record as meddling in the country's internal affairs. Sometimes, such criticism appears to have been counterproductive. Could more concerted efforts by its neighbours hope to affect China's behaviour on issues like its environmental or monetary policies?

DW: I don't think criticisms of China's poor human rights record have been counterproductive. They just haven't had much impact one way or the other. But although explicitly political rights are virtually non-existent, China has become a 'freer' country as a consequence of its economic reforms and development over the last 25 years. There are more reasons to think that China's economic opening to the world has put the country on an inexorable path that will culminate at some stage in political liberalisation and democratisation than to think otherwise.

The integration of China into regional or international organizations like the ASEAN+3 and the WTO supports and helps to buttress this process, even if the Chinese regime is unresponsive to ad hoc external pressure to change particular aspects of its domestic policies. On some issues, including environmental ones, domestic circumstances and pressures - thankfully - will likely force the Chinese government to take action. Neither China nor the world can survive the ecological consequences of 1.3 billion Chinese living in the future as the rich Western states have lived in the recent past!

K: EU member states are all liberal democracies. This is hardly the case with many ASEAN members, or with China. Is this a major impediment to further regional integration?

DW: It is indeed. Among the ASEAN+3, there are, in case of doubt, more authoritarian than democratic states. Authoritarian states resist close regional integration as it necessarily involves a curtailment of the prerogatives of national governments and this in turn may undermine their control over their societies and jeopardize the very survival of the authoritarian regime itself. Authoritarian regimes in ASEAN are the staunchest supporters of the principle of mutual non-interference in member states' affairs that continues to be a powerful ASEAN norm.

Democratization has made a lot of progress in East Asia over the last 15 years or so, however, and time is unlikely to be on the side of those authoritarian regimes that still exist - in as far as this is the case, the authoritarian-political impediment to closer integration will diminish in the future.


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