Caging the Dragon? Asian Regional Integration and U.S. Interests

By Brad Glosserman, Executive Director, Pacific Forum CSIS

Americans tend to be skeptical about or troubled by the notion of regional integration in Asia.

There is some basis for concern, but the advantages of integration are likely to exceed the cost to the United States.  An integrated Asia, the process of which has been shaped by the United States and like-minded partners, should strengthen the international system that Washington has labored to build over the last half century, reinvigorating and strengthening the norms and principles that have provided its foundation.

Defining “Asian integration” can be problematic for functional and geographic reasons. For my purposes, the term refers to East Asia, which I equate institutionally with ASEAN Plus Three. That narrowly conceived geographical scope allows me to demand more when it comes to functions. Meaningful integration means more than the loose confederation that defines ASEAN (its ambitions to create “communities” notwithstanding) but it doesn’t require the detailed legal framework of the European Union. At a minimum, it includes a regionwide free trade area, a political superstructure to express its collective will (no matter how sharp its teeth to demand conformity with its pronouncements) and recognition by the rest of the world that it is a meaningful political unit. Even that scaled-back objective may be too much. For many, Asian nations are too diverse, too committed to their (relatively) new sovereignty, and the benefits of integration are too diffuse to justify the costs. But if those formidable obstacles can be surmounted – and integration is proceeding, fitfully for sure, but there is progress nonetheless — most US observers worry that integration would come at their expense.

The Case Against Asia

There are three main objections to Asian integration. The first is that a regional economic unit would divert trade from the United States. Fred Bergsten (in “China and Economic Integration in East Asia: Implications for the United States”) estimates that “the United States could immediately lose as much as $25 billion of annual exports as a result of the initial static effects of the tariff discrimination that would result from truly free trade in East Asia (on the “10+3” model). These numbers could increase over time as dynamic economic effects, especially with respect to new investment patterns, are triggered.”

Related to, but distinct from that first concern, is the fear that a regional economic unit would be dominated by China. Creation of a Chinese “sphere of influence” would effectively exclude the United States from the most dynamic part of the global economy. It would tilt the regional balance of power, giving Beijing a political, economic and perhaps even military advantage in its competition with the US. This would impact US interests across a range of theaters, from Northeast Asia to the Indian Ocean.

The third concern extends that shift globally: the rise of Asia and the subsequent empowering of China could alter the way the world works. Bergsten describes this “systemic issue” as a “potential clash between a China-led Asia and a US-led ‘West’ for leadership of the global economy.” That may understate the implications. At stake would not just be the global economy, but the global order more broadly, as Beijing presses a model of international governance that promotes state sovereignty at the expense of human rights and freedoms. Like-minded governments would back a Chinese approach that effectively shields them from responsibility for excesses or abuses.

Or Not ….

While concerns about trade and investment diversion may be real, fears that an integrated Asia would exclude the US are not. First, there is China’s insistence that it does not seek to exclude the US from Asia. Chinese leaders and security planners acknowledge that the United States plays an important security role in the region and welcome its continued presence. We don’t have to take their word for it though: other Asian nations insist on an ongoing and robust US presence in the region. Beijing’s rhetoric about good neighborliness and equality

couldn’t quell the suspicions that grew throughout Asia in tandem with Beijing’s foreign policy assertiveness during 2010. It is fair to say that Chinese muscle-flexing in the last year did as much for the US position in Asia as a half century of American diplomacy.  Indeed, even when spheres of influence exist, hegemons don’t have complete freedom of action. The Monroe Doctrine hasn’t given Washington carte blanche to do as it pleases in South America; Beijing will encounter similar constraints.

Even countries drawn into China’s orbit by the great sucking sound of its economy – a sound that has been amplified by the shrewd use of free trade agreements – want to limit the spread of Beijing’s influence and eagerly seek counterbalances to Chinese power. While China looms increasingly large in the economic future of all Asian nations, virtually all those countries see the US playing an increasingly important security role at the same time. That explains the strong support for extending membership in the East Asian Summit to the United States, Russia, India and Australia. It also explains the efforts to modernize and streamline US alliances in Asia, as well as the outreach of other regional partners to consolidate ties to Washington. ASEAN in particular has welcomed the new vitality in US foreign policy toward the region and the attention that Washington has focused on the institution and Southeast Asia. Of course, no country wants to be forced to choose between the US and China; those countries do want as many governments as possible competing for ASEAN’s affection, however.

The Case for Asia

The skeptics will note that just because Asian integration doesn’t necessarily jeopardize American interests, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily good for the US either. That too is a short-sighted reading of US interests.

Most obviously, Asian nations see integration as in their interest. A more cohesive Asian community would reduce barriers to growth and prosperity, enhance capacity building throughout the region, and help build the trust and confidence needed to ensure that Asia remains a peaceful place as its residents become more prosperous. Most significantly, Asian nations seek to integrate because they believe that a unified Asia is needed to give them a political voice commensurate with their rising economic power. Over a decade ago, the East Asian Vision Group explained that one of its goals was “amplification of the East Asian voice in international affairs and expansion of the region’s contribution to the process of creating and evolving a new global order.” That desire has driven efforts ranging from the aborted East Asian Economic Group in the early 1990s to the Asian caucus within the Group of 20.  If Asian nations believe an integrated Asia as in their interests, then US cannot afford to be seen as an obstacle to that effort.

But that isn’t enough. The US should be more aggressive.  Creative and rigorous engagement with an integrated Asia should advance US interests by consolidating the existing international order. Rather than seeing the emergence of Asia as a threat to the current system of global governance, the United States should be working with allies and partners in Asia to reinforce it. Washington should endeavor to ensure that the “Asia” that emerges as the region integrates is one that is firmly committed to the principles of free trade, respect for human dignity, and the rule of law. That means identifying like-minded partners  that share US values and interests and getting them to speak up for the international order that has served them well. Persistent US diplomacy will not only remind those Asian governments of the importance of extra-regional bilateral ties as they pursue a regional agenda, but it will help internalize those norms. It is far better that Asian nations make the case for global values than other governments be seen as “imposing” them. We don’t need a reprise of the Asian values debate.

This process will consolidate those norms by reminding Asian governments of their importance and of the need for them to play an active role in the articulation, protection and projection of those principles. When an integrated Asia adopts them as its guiding principles, they will be built into the global architecture at yet another level – think of it as a form of rebar that reinforces the concrete of Asia’s new regional structure.

There is another rationale for the US to support Asian integration efforts. An integrated Asia can be used to constrain China. There is a temptation is to see a rising China as the independent variable in Asia, the actor that invariably influences the nations around it, bending them to its will. China is certainly larger by sizes of magnitude than virtually all its neighbors. It has an agenda and a willingness to use its considerable resources to realize its national objectives and preserve its core interests.

But China is not indifferent to its neighbors. The most important lesson of 2010 is that China can be constrained if its neighbors are united and send an unambiguous message about the limits of their tolerance. When Asia pushed back, Beijing changed course. That does not mean that China is not committed to the protection of its core interests, but the moderation of Chinese diplomacy has proven that China is not an unrestrained power. As in Europe after World War II, policy makers should see Asian integration as a way of balancing the scale and binding China in a web of commitments. That isn’t just a way of consolidating Chinese influence but a means of constraining Beijing as well.

The final element of US strategy toward Asian integration is the need for Washington to develop an Asia-Pacific strategy. While the US plays an integral role in promoting the security and stability that makes Asian prosperity possible, it is not a geographic part of the region. The US must accept that and count on its allies and partners to ensure that US interests and values are protected even when its diplomats are not in the room. That goal is easier when Asia itself is part of a larger construct – an Asia Pacific community. By embedding Asia within a still larger framework, the United States can be certain that the process of Asian integration is consistent with US objectives and needs, within the region (however it is defined) and globally.

US strategy needs to account for all dimensions of US power. It is tempting to see US involvement in Asia as a simple bargain – the provision of a public good (security) in exchange for private goods (trade and economic rewards). That is too crude a formulation. Rather, the US should articulate its interests more broadly, recognizing the regional and systemic elements of engaging Asia. This accords with the increasing resort to smart power and the emphasis on economic and diplomatic components of its strategic tool kit. In this strategy, Asia can play a key role, as both a focus of US foreign policy in its own right, and a powerful means to achieve broader US interests.

This essay was first published in the May 2011 edition of the Sigur Center Policy Commentary. You can download the PDF version here.

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About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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