APEC summit shows how hard it is to define the Asian ‘region’

Golden handshake. Abe and Xi meet on the sidelines of the APEC meeting on Beijing. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool/EPA

With considerable pomp and circumstance – and at considerable expense – it fell to China to host the annual APEC summit this year. If it lives long in the memory at all, the meeting will probably be remembered for a handshake between Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe; a greeting that seemed to take place in an emotional vacuum stripped of the warmth that sometimes accompanies human interactions. Outside of diplomatic niceties though, there was a telling reminder of how hard it remains to build anything approaching a viable consensus in the region.

Given the recent state of Sino-Japanese relations, that rather cool handshake is probably the best that could have been hoped for and does at least illustrate the value of meetings like this that force leaders (and their officials) to have some form of regular contact. Progress towards resolving bilateral trade issues between China and the US at the Beijing summit is another example of how what can appear to be just a talking shop can actually produce more than just hot air.

Dreams of integration

Xi Jinping also used the opportunity to establish what he called an “Asia Pacific Dream” of closer regional integration built on a new free trade area for the entire Asia Pacific. But in what might seem to be a potential spark for the creation of more effective regional governance, we instead see one of the main obstacles.

John Kerry at a meeting of the Trans Pacific Partnership. US Department of State

The Chinese initiative might contain within it an economic logic, but it is also driven by geostrategic concerns. What started out as free trade negotiations between Chile, New Zealand and Singapore in 2002 (and later Brunei) became something else for China when the US joined the discussions in 2008. In keeping with the idea of a US “pivot” to Asia, there are now concerns that what has become the Trans Pacific Partnership agenda represents a deliberate political attempt to weaken China, by keeping it outside a new trade framework that will make it easier and cheaper for members to deal with each other. Hence the need to promote an alternative that has China not just included, but front and centre, rather than isolated on the outside.

And these two are not the only free trade initiatives under negotiation. There is a third version in the form of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership proposal which includes the ten ASEAN members and the countries with whom ASEAN already has individual free trade agreements. These are Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. But notably not the US.

Existential questions

What we see in Asia is not just competing ideas over how the region should best be governed. Nor just competition over who should take the lead in the promotion of regional governance of whatever kind. We see an even more basic competition over the very idea of what the region actually is, could be and should be.

And the definition of region that is favoured often reflects perceptions of who would wield what level of power in any given configuration. There is a case for arguing, for example, that the idea of region as Asia Pacific (and APEC as an institution) is built around a desire to obstruct the emergence of an “Asian-Asia” without the US (and perhaps without neo-liberal economic preferences).

Mapping out Asia. Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology, CC BY

If you can’t get the region that you want, the next best is to stop others getting the region they want instead. For example, a Chinese preference for a region that it can dominate defined as ASEAN plus three (China, Japan and South Korea) might be diluted by adding India and Australia and New Zealand.

And region defined in this way (ASEAN plus six, as it were) is exactly what happened in the form of the East Asia Summit. The subsequent addition of Russia and the US redrew the regional boundaries once more and arguably resulted in what started out as a potential basis for regional governance becoming an “APEC-lite” institution. Perhaps we can even call it an “anti-region” – an institution that has evolved as a result of attempts to stop other forms of regional governance from emerging.

So, do geostrategic concerns mean that we will continue to see largely ineffective efforts to establish preferred grand regional projects by the region’s major powers? Probably. But these grand strategies should not be assumed to be the only regional game in town.

At the end of World War II, David Mitrany provided a vision of a “Working Peace System” that saw the search for binding forms of a single comprehensive organisation as the problem rather than the solution. Such bodies could never work, he argued, as they are by their nature inflexible; they have a fixed membership, rigid practices, and formally defined understandings of what issues fall within (and outside) of the organisation’s scope.

The key for Mitrany was to let the issue at hand drive the nature of the cooperation; to build numerous organisations with incommensurate memberships, agendas and modus operandi depending on what was necessary to succeed. And if politicians with nationalist inclinations were given less power to resolve shared problems than technical specialists, then all the better.

Targetted action

At a functional level, Asia is already replete with smaller-scale initiatives that have lead to actual working regional cooperation. In finance, the combined effects of the Asian and global financial crises have led to a recognition of the need for deeper financial cooperation between regional governments. ASEAN also promotes an extensive range of cooperation under the broad umbrella of its ASEAN Economic Community initiative. Rather than trying to find holistic regional level solutions to all the region’s problems, these initiatives instead focus on functionally discrete policy areas on issues as diverse as agriculture, telecommunications, energy, transport, finance, and tourism.

So the major powers will carry on trying to build understandings of region that fit their self-defined interests. And leaders will continue to meet at a range of institutional settings; and will manage to get some things done along the way.

At the same time, we are likely to see the ongoing evolution of multiple forms of “functional” regional collaboration focused on specific issue areas; often generated by the need to respond to crises. While we cannot ignore the former, it is the latter that provides the real basis for effective regional governance. This suggests the search for a once and for all single definition of the Asian region, and a corresponding regional organisation embodying this definition, is not only misguided but counterproductive.