Do Europe's troubles have lessons for an Asia trying to
find more cohesion through regional and bilateral pacts? Europe's
attempt to define itself in constitutional terms is in disarray, but
at least the issues and definitions are clear enough. In Asia, on
the other hand, the approach of the first East Asia Summit in Kuala
Lumpur in December posits the question: What is Asia?
The answer depends on
where you stand. "Asia" is a European concept whose embrace has over
centuries been stretched from Anatolia to the shores of the Pacific.
South Asians usually identify "Asian" with South Asia and use
"Oriental" to describe East Asians; Chinese likewise tend to exclude
those west of Burma from their perceptions of what is Asian.
Europe has an identity
provided by Greece, Rome, Byzantium and Christianity in the same way
as South Asia has a cultural identity linked to but not exclusive to
its dominant religion; Northeast Asia has some common, predominantly
Confucian Chinese and Buddhist themes; Southeast Asia has common
threads of social structure and language; West Asia has a religion
that in principle but not practice overrides other divides. In very
basic terms, Asia thus has at least four major identities, while
Europe has one.
The problems of
definition are thus almost insuperable - aside from simply saying
that Asia is not Western. The utility of that negative construct is
in steep decline as Asian nations gain international weight at the
expense of Europe and North America.
East Asia appeared for a
time to lay claim to defining Asia. The Asia Pacific Economic
Cooperation group, for example, includes most of the Pacific basin
but excludes South and Central Asia. The East Asia of this summit
ought to be self-defining, combining the Confucian Northeast with
its Southeastern neighbors.
But advances in India
and a fear of Chinese dominance now makes it necessary to invite
India (and probably Australia, too) to the gathering.
Clearly there is a lot
of scope within East Asia, with huge trade already, for enhanced
cooperation. In time - if China and Japan can emulate the postwar
Franco-German understanding - they might translate into something
like the European Economic Area, with free trade but no common
external or social policies. That in turn would promote cooperation
to limit exchange-rate volatility among members but fall well short
of a common currency.
But even that degree of
cooperation seems a long way off. Integrating India into this group
is even more problematic, given the lack of cooperation within South
Asia itself and its fundamentally different approach to the role of
trade in economic development.
Trade growth within Asia
has prospered with global liberalization and access to Western
markets. The test for East Asian economic cooperation will come if,
for whatever reason, entry to those markets is made much more
The East Asia Summit
could promote political dialogue. America's exclusion should help
keep it focused on Asian issues rather than global ones. The United
States is, of course, an Asian power, but East Asian countries need
to address issues directly rather than through the prism of their
relations with America.
If there is a lesson
from Europe's recent troubles, it may be to ensure that the Kuala
Lumpur agenda is set with a clear focus on what is possible, not on
what makes for good political rhetoric or what provides occasions
for endless meetings of officials whose common interests and
backgrounds are not shared by their publics at large.