After a decade of rising regionalist aspirations and a flurry of community-building initiatives, the past year and a half has seen a slight shift in the momentum and direction of Asian regionalism. While the signing of regional free trade agreements continues apace and discussions on regional cooperative mechanisms proceed unabated, the perceptions and political goals of many in the region have been recalibrated in the face of new challenges and new opportunities. By far, the biggest challenge was the global economic crisis, which had a mixed impact on Asian regionalism. On one hand, it spurred calls for regional action, much in the way of the financial crisis that hit Asia hard in 1997-98. Moreover, the relatively swift recovery of Asian economies seemed to highlight the fact that world economic power is shifting to East Asia. On the other hand, crisis revealed the extent to which East Asia remains deeply integrated with the global economy, in both trade and finance, and it called into question the relevance of regional solutions for dealing with global challenges.
New opportunities arose with the election of new political leaders in Australia, Japan, and the US, each of whom placed regional initiatives high on their political agenda. Australia’s Kevin Rudd and Japan’s Hatoyama Yukio laid out competing grand visions for regional architecture that engaged Asian diplomats and policy analysts in lofty and abstract debates about institutional design and the proper membership and pacing for community-building. The change in the US had an even greater impact on regional dynamics. After years of Bush administration policies that were perceived, fairly or not, as showing a lack of US interest in regional engagement, the Obama team took every opportunity to deliver the message that “the US is back” in Asia. Its outreach to ASEAN has been particularly aggressive, raising the hopes and expectations of those who would like to see greater US involvement in regional community-building.
On the ground, however, progress on achieving tangible cooperation in regional frameworks, both trans-Pacific and East Asian, has been meager at best. The global economic crisis gave rise to the G20 that, while elevating the symbolic weight of Asian economies in global governance, has also created institutional competition for regional frameworks. Regional economic integration faces emerging and unresolved challenges, as the noodle bowl of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) grows more tangled and the impact of Chinese economic competition deepens. Meanwhile, effective frameworks for multilateral security cooperation remain elusive.
Asia-Pacific regionalism has been spurred by increasing economic integration but pulled apart by territorial tensions. These two trends have proceeded on separate paths with only occasional intersection. However, security dynamics are likely to increasingly influence regionalism as China rises and the US attempts to “pivot” more of its foreign policy to Asia. ASEAN continues to serve as a base for regional organizations, but in 2012 questions were raised about whether that center could hold. ASEAN’s goal to complete the blueprint for the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 2015 puts additional pressure on the group. On a broader regional plane, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has expanded in recent months with the addition of Japan, Mexico, and Canada. Meanwhile, the launch of negotiations for the ASEAN-based Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in late 2012 raises fears of a bifurcated landscape for the Asia-Pacific region into US and Chinese economic “spheres of influence.”