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China + ASEAN + FTA = East Asian Unification? Not Quite Part II

As discussed in Part I of this series, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) will be a win-win for the signatories. The agreement will produce greater economies of scales, as it expands trade between members, which will result in an aggregate increase in competitive export products from China and ASEAN. However, it will not foreshadow European-style regional integration, at least not in the near future. The centrifugal force generated by the agreement will not only draw ASEAN closer to China, the regions manufacturing hub, but it will push those states outside the bloc to liberalize their own trade in order to stay competitive. While the United States is generally supportive of ASEAN, it is not in the strategic interest of the U.S. for it to be outside of an Asian economic bloc, especially one that will aid in cementing a strong Chinese leadership position in Southeast Asia. Implementation of this agreement has increased concerns among some analysts that the economic and perhaps, the political center of gravity of the region are shifting away from the United States and toward China.

Over the last 10 years, Southeast Asia has received approximately US$90 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI); it is the third largest market for U.S. exports; and U.S.-ASEAN trade is over US$140 billion (Pitsuwan 2008). Southeast Asia is flush with agricultural and natural resources, and is home to more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic. Intraregional trade between ASEAN nations still hovers at 25% and in East Asia, it now verges on 55% (Pitsuwan 2008). Over 80% of Japanese and Chinese oil imports travel through these sea-lanes. The geopolitical reality is that due to proximity and economic clout, China’s access to this region will increase. This could not only be detrimental to America’s economic interests, but also represent a strategic threat.

It is in America and ASEANs best interest for the U.S. to not only promote further ASEAN integration, but also establish stronger ties with the region. This will enable ASEAN to serve as a fulcrum between China (and India). America must also realize that China’s increasing penetration into Southeast Asia is not a zero-sum game; the U.S. must be prepared to have a constructive working relationship with China in the region. If the America hopes to balance China’s growing influence it will need a rapprochement with ASEAN that displays a cohesive policy for the organization, but at the same time exploit the diversity of opinion within ASEAN. This will allow the U.S. to advance its policy goals in the region.


Over the last decade, China’s resurgent role in Southeast Asia has moved from a situation that generated fear in the region, to one where China is seen as a benign regional leader that plays a constructive role in creating opportunity. China has worked hard to market this image while participating in regional institutions. Its long-term goals are to create greater interdependencies between itself and Southeast Asia through economic incentives, which will give ASEAN a strong stake in China’s success. In this way, ASEAN can serve as insurance against possible U.S., Japanese, Indian containment in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. At the same time, Beijing hopes it can simultaneously reduce the influence of the United States in the South China Sea.

China is increasing its political reach in the region through a series of strong bilateral ties with ASEAN member-states. These links include increased cooperation in regional security (including providing military training), scholarships, and helping to facilitate conflict resolution in the region. China has also promised over US$10 billion in infrastructure, energy, and cultural programs between the countries. China has especially provided special assistance to the lesser developed states of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

During the 1997 Asian financial Crisis, America did not provide significant leadership, which left room for China advance itself as a regional leader, often at the expense of Japan. China promised not to devalue its currency, the Renminbi, which helped return stability to the markets, a move much praised in the region. Tokyo worked to provide a competitive framework for an Asian Monetary fund, in an effort to engender long-term stability. Washington repeatedly blocked this endeavor, out of fear it would be froze-out by a potential Asian bloc. Japan and China are still pushing their competing ideas of a greater-East Asia economic sphere, but the main difference between the two nations is that Japan wishes to include Australia, New Zealand, and India in an attempt to minimize the influence of China. Obviously, China is not interested in having none ASEAN and East Asian nations involved.

The idea for an Asian Monetary Fund did not die. In February 2008, the ASEAN+3 forum in Thailand agreed to expand bilateral currency swaps and also enlarge the Chiang Mai Initiative reserve fund in order to enhance regional economic stability in the wake of the current global financial crisis. This goal has prompted ASEAN+3, in coordination with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to develop an Asian Currency Unit (ACU) as part of a comprehensive Asian Monetary Fund. China has promoted the idea, which has gained wide regional support. China championing this effort appears surprising considering past objections; however, Beijing is supportive of the ACU because it is now able to take a greater leadership role in its management than Japan, whereas it was not in a position to do so 10 years earlier. Although meant to be non-tradable, the ACU would be an indicator of the stability of participating currencies in the region, an Asian version of the European Currency Unit, which was the precursor to the Euro. Due to the wide variance in levels of economic development, the sophistication of financial transfer systems, and the levels of nationalism in the Pacific Rim, a single currency for the region is still unlikely.

What ASEAN Needs

Western analyst had long criticized and even dismissed ASEAN; the common narrative characterized the organization as soft on human rights and democracy, and therefore incapable of taking decisive and constructive action concerning regional issues that were important to the West. Some pasts areas of conflict involved human rights in Myanmar and East Timor, as well as issues of democracy in key members states like Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Part of the problem is that Western observers have not tended to judge ASEAN on its own merit, but instead, based on how it compares to the contemporary European Union (EU). As a result, ASEAN has never been fully respected by the United States.

For their part, not all ASEAN members have been eager to see a stronger American presence in the region. In the 1990’s, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for a greater East Asian forum, which would exclude the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Many in the region termed this the "caucus without Caucasians", something Washington successfully nixed, but to only see it rebooted a decade later as ASEAN+3.

At the time, the exclusion of Western nations reflected the regional vogue of "Asian Values", an ideology trumpeted by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, along with some political thinkers in Japan. Those who adhered to this ideology espoused that all Asians share distinctive cultural traits that make them fundamentally different from Westerners; therefore, Western political and social norms were not entirely appropriate for Asian societies. Some of these shared Asian values are a preference for social harmony, government paternalism, collectivism over the rights of individuals, respect toward authority, and a greater concern for socio-economic stability over human rights.

By the turn of the century, deeply pragmatic ASEAN states came to the realization that it was impossible to push Western powers out of the region, so it began what was termed, "constructive engagement" with all of them. Under this policy, ASEAN intends to hedge its relationship with the larger powers (China, India, America, and Australia) as an intermediary, reaping the benefits for its member states. Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo, speaking for ASEAN to the press in November 2007, described the importance of America to Southeast Asia: "In short, no major strategic issue in Asia can be resolved without the active participation of the U.S" (Marciel 2008).

America’s Next Move

In the aftermath of 9-11, the bulk of Washington’s foreign policy capacity was consumed by wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Major initiatives in Southeast Asia fell by the wayside as the primary focus moved to counter-terrorism and other security concerns. Even when America’s focus broadened beyond the "War on Terror" into issues of trade, its approach was often ineffectual. The U.S. cannot afford to squander another decade in the region teetering between security issues and weak trade.

The 2005, Joint Vision Statement on the ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership was not enough to secure America’s future in Southeast Asia; Washington needs to define, create, and utilize more avenues of regular dialogue between itself and ASEAN. Although the U.S. and ASEAN have enjoyed relations for 30 years, no regular annual summits have ever been established. Shoring up the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) is a good place to begin, but it should only be a pass-through for more specialized U.S.-ASEAN talks. The current lack of contact hurts America’s ability to focus its attention on ASEAN states. The U.S. should encourage East/Southeast Asian integration, because it will help to socialize and constrain provocative movements by China. It may also encourage American investors to do greater business in the region, as the various types of independent national laws and regulations are streamlined. Nevertheless, America should also exploit areas of friction between ASEAN and China, as well as the lack of cohesion within ASEAN.

Although China has achieved strong ties with certain members of ASEAN, many nations in the region, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam still maintain a healthy fear of Chinese hegemony and anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations has not yet abated. There have been complaints, by some ASEAN members, that China pushed bilateral FTA negotiations to isolate nations that were not very pro-China, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Southeast Asian diplomats have also grumbled that China’s influence has hindered consensus building within ASEAN as member nations try to gage Beijing’s potential reaction.

The U.S. has also not closely engaged China-friendly states, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. This is especially true in the case of Myanmar due to human rights concerns, which have resulted in embargoes that have resulted in little political change. The U.S. needs a more pragmatic approach. These nations would be very receptive to American competition for their attention.

The United States and Japan remain the largest investors in the region and the largest ASEAN export receivers. China is not close to eclipsing the U.S. in hard power projection and America is still the largest source of popular culture. With respect to trade, some ASEAN members are not pleased that Early Harvest has allowed China to compete in raw materials, agricultural products, and minerals it did not produce, whereas China will eventually have lower tariff free access to manufacturing markets that ASEAN and Chinese firms were already competing in.

The U.S. has much more work to do on the free trade front. Thus far, America has only one FTA completed agreements, in the nearly 15 years since the U.S. initiated its first Asia-Pacific TIFA, with Singapore in 1991. There are stalled negotiations for FTAs with Thailand and Malaysia, and the Philippines and Indonesia have expressed interest in FTAs. Besides FTAs, policymakers have other eco­nomically significant agreements available, including the expansion of trade and investment framework agree­ments (TIFA) and open skies agreements (OSA). A TIFA is a consultative mechanism for the United States to discuss trade issues, and an OSA creates free markets for aviation services. America has TIFAs with ASEAN, but TIFAs and OSAs have been severely underutilized. Unlike China, the U.S. should work as multilateral as possible with ASEAN to avoid the negative effects of export diversion and encourage ASEAN unity.

Long term, the U.S. could do more in advancing the scope of FTAs and OSAs in Asia. A region-wide agreement would better reduce regional trade barriers, increase U.S.-ASEAN trade, and advance American security interests. The U.S. must stop blocking Japan’s attempts to project a competing vision of Asian unity, because it has not worked. The only result is Japan losing influence to China, which is not in Japan or America’s national interests. Instead, Washington can work with Japan to promote shared interests inside the ASEAN+3 framework, where Japan can serve as a U.S. proxy on specific issues critical to both nations. This would be a similar relationship to what the U.S. enjoys with Britain with respect to the European Union. Currently, Northeast Asia’s economic heavyweights are the world’s last remaining region that lacks an inter-governmental trade bloc, such as ASEAN. The U.S. does not want to find itself outside such a teaming, so it should be working with Japan to create one that is more inclusive. Even if FTAs are not politically feasible, the US should focus on TIFAs for high priority areas of interest.

Lastly, the U.S. should do what it must to gain Japan’s assistance in fighting any attempts for an tradable ACU, because that could limit U.S. government’s ability to finance its larger budget deficits at relatively low interest.


Pitsuwan, Surin. 2008. "Bolstering U.S.-ASEAN Cooperation"
Japan Times Online.

Marciel, Scot A. 2008. "Remarks to Center o Strategic International Studies Meeting
’U.S. and Southeast Asia: Toward a Strategy for Enhanced Engagement’"
U.S. State Department.

 source: Brooks Foreign Policy Review