Building on the Chiang Mai Initiative, an earlier agreement in ASEAN + 3 that provided for bilateral currency swaps in the event of a crisis, this agreement may signal a new phase in Asian regionalism, although, as this Reuters story notes, the details of the arrangement have yet to be solidified.
I think this agreement may be important for a few reasons: it cements the role of ASEAN + 3 as the critical forum in regional cooperation (much to the chagrin of the US, undoubtedly); it reinforces the counter intuitive pattern of integration whereby ASEAN is the hub and the region’s giants (Japan, China, and South Korea) are the spokes; and, together with that, it signals to the world that even as Asia stands up a complement (or a rival) to the IMF, Asian integration remains a largely open affair.
While I think the first two points are probably uncontroversial, the last may require some teasing out.
The key point is that ASEAN is the hub. Because ASEAN, a group of smaller, poorer countries dwarfed by the great powers of Northeast Asia is the hub of regional integration arrangements, there is less of a “Fortress Asia” feel to ASEAN + 3 cooperation than there might otherwise have been if it was occurring under the aegis of China or Japan. With Japan and China cancelling out each other’s influence within the grouping, ASEAN has been free to push for a more open environment. ASEAN’s thrust — and thus the thrust of ASEAN + 3 initiatives — is largely outward.
Look at ASEAN’s recent activities. It has recently opened FTA negotiations with the EU and CEP negotiations with Japan, while continuing with CEP negotiations with the PRC and pushing ahead with the liberalization of markets within ASEAN.
One can argue about whether these agreements are trade-creating or trade-distorting, but the politics of ASEAN-centered regionalism suggest a more dynamic, commercial regionalism than Europe’s inward-looking, institution-building regionalism. As numerous commentators have observed, the conditions of Asia make European-style integration unlikely.
The relationship of the ASEAN + 3 pool to the IMF remains to be decided — Yomiuri suggests that it will be complementary — but that relationship will say much about how power has shifted to Asia in the decade since the Asian contagion. As such, even as the region becomes more open to global commerce, it may become less friendly to international financial institutions perceived as harmful to “Asian” interests.
While it is too early to say more about this arrangement, seeing as how it remains inchoate, it is, unmistakably, an important step in Asian regionalism — and a sign of the growing wealth, power, and independence of Asian countries (and not just China).