The discussion ended up being very interesting, addressing the many varieties and possibilities of trade agreements in East Asia.
But I’m not going to summarize the discussion here. Rather, I found the contrast with the talk I attended earlier this week, on the evolving situation in the Taiwan Straits, jarring, but illuminating.
It seems that at present, two Asias exist side by side — with observers seeing the Asia they prefer to see. The business leaders, academics and diplomats gathered at the Keidanren today prefer to see the Asia characterized by ever-deepening economic, political, and cultural integration, the “spaghetti bowl” of organizations and agreements, including ASEAN, ASEAN + 3, the East Asian Summit (ASEAN + 6), APEC, the Chiang Mai Initiative (connected to ASEAN + 3), the ASEAN Regional Forum, and a host of bilateral free trade agreements. It’s an Asia marked by increasingly dense trade and investment ties within the region. At the heart of this Asia is China, the new “workshop of the world,” which has become one of the world’s biggest traders since joining the WTO, and has enthusiastically embraced regionalism. This is the China that showed up at Cebu earlier this year.
But then there’s the other China — the China that reacts defensively to US calls for military transparency (not to mention the ASAT test) — that was the focus of Randy Schriver’s talk on Wednesday. That’s not to say that Schriver only described the belligerent China; if anything, his view, and the view of China in the Armitage-Nye Report, is much more balanced than the seemingly unbridled optimism I heard today. In any case, this second Asia contains the risk of conflict, as it is characterized by ethnic tensions, arguments over history, the possibility of zero-sum competition for energy (the Sino-Japanese conflict over EEZs in the East China Sea, for example), the potential for a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia, and concerns about China’s military buildup, especially as directed at Taiwan. This Asia is by no means inevitable, but every time China shows its belligerent side, the shadow of this conflictual Asia threatens to darken the bright, shining Asia of ever thicker regional ties.
I give the US government credit for not overreacting in recent years to the shadows of the latter Asia — but sooner or later it is going to have to exert substantial effort to ensure that the former takes a shape that is in the interests of the US (i.e., an Asia that does not harden into a trade bloc that excludes the US). Having a hedge against the latter outcome, in the form of enhanced alliances with Japan and Australia and deeper ties with India, Vietnam, and other regional partners, is fine, but it can only be one facet of US Asia policy.
So I’m with Georgetown’s Dennis McNamara, one of the keynote speakers on Friday: it is time for the US to begin working at shaping the cooperative Asia as best it can in a direction that favors the US. (See this Asahi interview for a summary of McNamara’s views on this subject.)
But it is important to remember that the decision as to which Asia — cooperative or conflictual — will emerge will depend largely on decisions made in Beijing.