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Prof Shaun Breslin - As APEC and ASEAN meet, trying to define 'Asia' remains misguided and counterproductive

Major powers will carry on trying to build understandings of the Asian region that fit their self-defined interests, argues Professor Shaun Breslin from the University of Warwick's Department of Politics and International Studies. Instead, "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."

Professor Breslin's comment in full:

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.

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).

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.

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.

To speak with Professor Breslin please contact:

Tom Frew - International Press Officer, University of Warwick;

a dot t dot frew at warwick dot ac dot uk

+44 (0) 2476575910

Professor Shaun Breslin;

Shaun dot Breslin at warwick dot ac dot uk