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Identifying East Asia

By Sean Breslin

Since my days as an undergraduate I’ve always thought of East Asia as China, Japan and the Koreas – because these were the countries we studied on my degree! But there is also something about these countries that marked them out as being in some way separate or different from Southeast Asia. These were the countries that were most influenced by Confucian political thought (as opposed to Buddhist philosophies and traditions) and part of the core of the ancient Sinitic world order.

And in any case, we knew where Southeast Asia was and knew that it wasn’t the same as East Asia. Well, we sort of knew where Southeast Asia was, though the understanding of what this region was changed over the years. The idea of a distinct Southeast Asian region actually owes much to exogenous actors – to French colonial rule and through military-defined theatres of operation in the war against Japan.

This understanding of a region called Southeast Asia was subsequently cemented by the creation of a formal regional institution – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASE AN). OK, this region was not static – something that those of us in ‘Europe’ know only too well – with new members joining in the shape of Brunei, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. So what we mean by Southeast Asia might not be static, but at least we know that East Asia and Southeast Asia are different.

But of course, it’s not that easy. I write this as Visiting Professor in the Centre for Northeast Asian Regional Integration Research at Beijing University at the kind invitation of Professor Wang Zhengyi. Northeast Asia here refers to – well, China, Japan and the Koreas. To get to an understanding of East Asia under this definition we need to add on the ASE AN member states. So ‘East’ Asia is a combination of ‘Northeast’ and ‘Southeast’ Asia – which seems to make sense.

But of course, it’s not that easy either. In political terms, there is much to commend (or do I mean cement?) this definition of East Asia. The addition of Japan, South Korea and China to the (then) members of ASE AN formed the heart of Malaysian leader Mohamad Mahathir’s idea of an East Asian Economic Group to stand for Asian interests and values in opposition to the dominant norms of the West. Although the group was downgraded to a caucus within the bigger Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), it was an important symbol of self-identification of a region: not so much based on a shared conception of what the region was, but more what it wasn’t – East Asia as different from the Australasian and continental American members of APEC where liberal political and economic norms dominated.

After the East Asian financial crisis, the (now expanded) members of ASE AN again came together with their three northeast Asian partners in the first ‘ASE AN+3’ summit in December 1997. The idea of region seemed to be firmly in place: a region that knew what it was in terms of who was in and who was out; a region that felt the need to find its own solutions in the face of what were thought to be inappropriate and perhaps even recriminatory solutions to the crisis promoted by the western dominated international financial institutions; a region that began to institutionalise formal co-operation and co-ordination at the ASE AN+3 level. Moreover, this was a region where trade and investment flows were increasingly binding individual economies together into a complex web of economic interactions that reinforced the idea of a regional economic effort, and also perhaps increasingly required the region’s elites to come together to find common solutions to common economic problems.

Yet when the region came together in the first East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005, it did not map onto the ASE AN+3 vision of region but instead included India, Australia, and New Zealand. East Asia was now defined as Northeast Asia plus Southeast Asia plus (parts of) South Asia plus Australasia. And ironically, it seems that one of the main impulses behind the establishment of an ASE AN+3 vision of region also did much to promote the alternative wider understanding of region as well – the rise of China.

Chinese policy towards regional integration has gone from considering the region to be an automatic ally of the US opposed to Chinese interests in the 1980s, to proactive engagement and indeed the promotion of a regional free trade agenda by the beginning of the millennium. And, of course, China has emerged as the hub of a new region of production and trade, absorbing resources and finances to become the workshop of the world (and is increasingly becoming a major source of outward investment to the rest of the region as well). But just as China’s inclusion in any regional effort seemed to become increasingly essential, so the fear of a China dominated region also began to take on increasing significance in Tokyo and other regional capitals.

Thus the inclusion of another massive emerging market in the form of India and the democracies of Australasia in the EAS might be seen as not so much an exercise in region building, but an exercise in preventing the emergence of a sino-centric regional order. And moving away from the ASE AN+3 idea of region immediately re-opens the question of who or what is East Asia. Mongolia and Pakistan are not members, but from 2008 became part of the ‘Asia’ that meets with Europe in the bi-annual Asia-Europe Meeting – an Asia in this case that does not include New Zealand and Australia.

So where does this leave us? Well, it partly leaves us in an alphabet soup of acronyms that all seem to contain the letters E and A – but not always in the same order and not always standing for the same thing! And this multitude of acronyms is a sign that understandings of regions are fluid with compass points far less important in identifying a region than the complex array of other political, economic and ideational factors. I think I know where East Asia is, and I think I know what the region thinks it is – but despite all this (or do I mean ‘because’ of all this?), I'm far from sure that it’s where the East Asian region will be in the future.


‘Sometimes what appears to be the simplest of tasks can take you into a world of confusing complexity. Take, for example, a question that has been concerning me for some time now: where is East Asia? You have probably already formed your own answer in your mind – I wonder if it’s the same as my initial response?’

Shaun Breslin is Professor of Politics and International Studies. He is also an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Centre for European Studies, Renmin University, Beijing, and has been a Visiting Fellow at the City University of Hong Kong and the University of Stellenbosch, and a Visiting Professor at Beijing University. He has undertaken policy work for, and given presentations to many government bodies including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. Professor Breslin is co-editor of ‘The Pacific Review’.


Professor Sean Breslin

Department of Politics & International Studies