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Philip Bowring: Toward an 'Asian Union'?

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG 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 difficult.
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.
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