When the leaders of China, Japan and Korea met last weekend and declared their commitment to greater regional integration and a free-trade pact, news reports around the region heralded a new era of Asian cooperation. But the history of other such efforts shows that they are usually built more on hopes than reality, particularly because they try to downplay the key role of the United States in East Asian security.
Grand plans for creating an Asian community of some sort multiply by the year, and in some ways this shows how much East Asia has changed for the better: Consider that for nearly half a century after World War II, East Asia seemed frozen in time, divided into political and military blocs, riven by ideology, and as far as possible from thinking of itself as an integrated region. But reality almost always dashes expectations for today's integration efforts.
The latest vision for an East Asian community comes from Japan's new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, who brought it up at his first meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the United Nations just days after taking power. Mr. Hatoyama has called for an "Asean Plus Six" approach that would include the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian nations as well as Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. "Until now, we have tended to be too reliant on the United States," Mr. Hatoyama said after last weekend's summit, underscoring recent statements indicating his desire to shift Japan's policies closer to Asia. At the summit, the three leaders also talked grandly of enhancing trilateral cooperation on climate change and economic growth.
This may sound like a challenge to America's role in the region, but major obstacles prevent Mr. Hatoyama's vision from becoming a reality. Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada admitted as much by noting that the new initiative would not become an European Union-style partnership with a common currency. Disparate political and economic systems make such a goal chimerical, similar to the way they have limited Asean's effectiveness over the past two decades. More significantly, Beijing is not in favor of including democratic nations like Australia and India in a future community, preferring instead to keep the organization more restricted, and therefore perhaps more amenable to Chinese proposals.
Northeast Asia is not the only locus of budding regionalism: Another "Asean Plus Six" grouping, the East Asia Summit, has failed to get off the ground after holding a handful of meetings. In addition, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last year proposed a more inclusive Asia-Pacific Community that would embrace the U. S., India and Indonesia, among others. As with the Japanese proposal, Mr. Rudd's vision was short on details.
By some counts there are already too many half-realized multilateral institutions in Asia. Almost all of these share the weaknesses of lacking clear priorities and effective mechanisms, let alone common goals. Both Mr. Rudd and Mr. Hatoyama want any new organization to deal with security issues, yet that is something Beijing has resisted. Even economic cooperation, for example on free-trade agreements, is fraught with competing positions and hamstrung by domestic opposition. Talk of sustainable growth and combating climate change is untethered to any concrete policies. The grander the rhetoric, the less impressive is the reality of Asian regionalism.
These efforts fail because any future regionalism realistically needs the U.S. to be a willing and central participant. Because any talk of security cooperation without America is wildly premature, the region's nations must take care not to forget that the U.S. system of alliances undergirds stability in Asia and is central to lubricating political engagement among countries large and small. For its part, Washington should not sit on the sidelines while the world's most dynamic economies begin to create meaningful trade agreements among them that do not include the U.S.
The fact that Asia's leaders are serious about integrating the region is good news. The fact that they have so little to show for their efforts so far is a reminder that, for now at least, America remains an indispensable player in Asia.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.