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1 Regionalism in East Asia: Changing Institutional Patterns in a Complex Region

1 Regionalism in East Asia: Changing Institutional Patterns in a Complex Region

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an East Asian region after the crisis (e.g. Harris 2000; Higgott and Stubbs

1995; Terada 2003).

The crisis also illustrated the competing visions of Asian regional order

already in existence (Acharya 1999). While (IR) realist perspectives seem

to perform better in illuminating the insecurities generated by the crisis and in stressing the need for great power leadership and a balance of

power in the region, institutionalists allude to the general challenges of

globalization associated with the changes produced by the crisis. They

argue that the latter showed the need for more transparent, rule-based,

and inclusive regional institutions. Among East Asian countries, concerns

intensified after the crisis that reforms could be imposed from outside

the region—thereby lacking the knowledge and sensitivity for local conditions. That is why there was an increased interest in regional cooperation

and policy consultation, so as to discover regional solutions and generate effective local mechanisms for crisis prevention and management. The

Asian crisis thus worked as a “powerful motor” for regional institution

building, due to its strengthening of the perception of mutual economic

interdependence and fueling of growing resentment against the USA and

its reactions to the crisis (see Harris 2000; Webber 2001).

In response to pressing economic needs and challenges, as well as the

failure of already existing regional institutions such as ASEAN or the AsiaPacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to effectively tackle the situation,

ASEAN finance ministers met with counterparts from China, Japan, and

South Korea in 1997 for the first time. With a joint statement made in

1999, the “10 + 3” countries established out of these meetings the first

exclusively East Asian cooperative framework, known as APT.  The idea

of such an East Asian grouping had already been put forward in 1990 by

the then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, in the form of an East Asian

Economic Caucus (EAEC). This was an alternative vision to regional

cooperation that proposed to exclude the Pacific powers and only consist

of the ASEAN countries plus China, Japan, and South Korea.5

Since its inception, APT showed in this spirit several successful East

Asian solutions to East Asian problems—most notably a network of

bilateral swap arrangements under the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) in

2000, followed by its later multilateralization (CMIM) in 2010. Scholars

acknowledge in this regard that the “APT process has developed an organizational momentum that few would have predicted at the first informal

summit in late 1997” (Stubbs 2002, 450), and further postulate that “it

looks as if the institutionalisation of the region [has] gained ground to an

extent that is irreversible for the foreseeable future” (Nabers 2010, 949).



The Asian financial crisis has incontrovertibly been a major external impetus for institutional change in East Asia. Since that time, three major driving forces have continued to change the arrangements in the region: “the

level of American participation, the nature of China’s involvement, and the

strength of regionalism in Southeast Asia” (Emmers and Tan 2012, 194).

In respect thereof, Asian multilateralism reflects the history and traits of the

region, which have always been crucial for the development of cooperation

on a regional level (Harris 2000). A certain kind of regional “togetherness”

and a common sense of identity are in this connection important components in promoting regional cooperation and integration in East Asia.

Competing visions of regional order and corresponding concepts of East

Asia have been an ongoing point of struggle in the region since the end

of the Cold War, given the necessity that there should be at least a loose

consensus among members on the region’s makeup and its associated institutional arrangements (see Higgott and Stubbs 1995; Terada 2003). While

there is a mutual desire for Asian-led institutions, developments on the

ground have revealed “a far more dynamic, ongoing, and uncertain debate

about architecture in the region” (Gill and Green 2009, 12). Herein, ideas

as to what community building should actually look like as well as concrete

forms and functions of integration continue to be contested.

This also showed up in APT’s attempts to deepen regional integration

in the form of community building, which resulted in the establishment

of yet another regional institution: the EAS.  With its broader membership—including the Asia-Pacific region as represented by Australia, India,

and New Zealand, in addition to APT members—the EAS exemplifies the

ongoing struggle about the ideal organization of the regional architecture. This is not to mention the EAS’s recent membership enlargement to

include the USA and Russia, which was officially confirmed in 2010 with

the first extended format meeting taking place in 2011.

This aside, despite the general success of regional economic integration,

East Asian security cooperation has shaped up to be much more difficult to

achieve. Though the Six-Party Talks held in 2003 over how to deal with the

challenge of a North Korea in possession of nuclear weapons displayed a sense

of collective responsibility, no consensus could be found afterward on how

to manage this threat—resulting in talks breaking down after 2008. In 2010,

China declared the South China Sea to be a core interest and expanded its

military power accordingly. This situation turned out to be another turning

point in regional cooperation, putting US involvement back on the priority

list and thereby “raising the likelihood that an inclusive form of regionalism

would take precedence over any exclusive type” (Rozman 2012, 24).



What is noticeable is how many authors make use of the term emergence in explaining regionalism in East Asia. They ask, for instance, if

APT stands for “emerging East Asian regionalism” (Stubbs 2002, 440),

or talk about “the emergence and acclimation of the concept of East Asia”

and “the emergence of a sense of identity” (Terada 2003, 253) among

East Asian countries. While these examples aptly describe the institutional

dynamics in the region, it is striking that no further attention is paid to

the term emergence nor is it conceptualized in any way. There are, as

such, not enough systematic studies out there at present that analyze and

explain the emergence of and changes in Asian regionalism (see Yu 2003).

What is more, although a large number of studies refer to the creation of

regional order or discuss competing visions thereof (e.g. in the form of

different regional institutions), they barely account for the formation of

the innovative structures associated with it. Thus, regional institutions are

mainly treated as mere epiphenomena of regional integration processes.

Questions regarding why and how regional institutions emerge, or how

they affect regional architecture, are further addressed in IR theory only

by different versions of institutionalism.




Studies of regionalism in IR commonly include a focus on institutional

research. By reviewing the different theoretical perspectives on Asia’s IR,

Acharya (2008, 61) sets out the varying ideas about the role and impact

of regional institutions. While, according to classical (IR) realism, institutions are adjuncts to the balance of power, neorealists hold East Asian

regional institutions to be instruments of China’s sphere of influence.

Concerned with growing interdependence, both liberalism and neoliberalism perceive economic and security regimes to be a means by which

to promote free trade and manage any possible disputes. Constructivist

approaches emphasize the norm-setting and community-building functions of regional institutions, which evolve from already established patterns of dialogue and informal institutions.

In IR, one major focus of institutional research was first established in

the mid-1970s with the scrutiny of international regimes (see Keohane

and Nye 1977; Krasner 1982). This research strand is usually associated

with “institutionalism” in IR (Peters 2005, 142). The common and oftenquoted definition of international regimes articulated by Krasner (1982,



185)—“principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around

which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area”—aimed to

achieve balance between different research traditions, and consequently is

relatively open to interpretation. Following their different schools, several

diverse theoretical approaches found their way into the debate. All had

as their aim the study of international institutions, which stimulated an

ongoing methodological debate.

Keohane, who stressed that “[i]nstitutions do not merely reflect

the preferences and power of the units constituting them; the institutions themselves shape those preferences and that power” (1988, 382),

compared two of these different approaches as rationalist and reflective

theories. This form of differentiation shows similarities to three broader

prominent strands of the so-called new institutionalisms: rational-choice,

historical, and sociological institutionalism (see Hall and Taylor 1996;

Immergut 1998). These versions of new institutionalist thinking have primarily been applied in political science. But, inasmuch as a lot of the logics

behind approaches to international relations are compatible with these

institutional approaches in political science (Peters 2005, 140), the latter

also found their way into the IR discipline.

Rational-choice institutionalism is based on a set of behavioral assumptions: States, as the main actors of international relations, have a fixed set

of preferences and behave in a rational way, according to their self-interest,

in order to maximize gains. Institutions arise out of states’ strategic interactions that result from their interdependence and collective action dilemmas (Hall and Taylor 1996). The main function of institutions is thus to

reduce transaction costs. In IR, the notion of transaction costs has mainly

been spread by Keohane’s (1984) functional theory of international

regimes. However, as Keohane argues himself, rationalist approaches to

institutions “[fail] to account for the creation or demise of such institutions” (1988, 387). If anything, being restricted only to a situation of

strategic interaction and thus a very limited number of possible settings

means that a “rational choice version of change is good at identifying why

conscious change may occur in a world of stable preferences and institutional failures” (Peters 2005, 62). Relying on punctuated equilibrium

models, transformations can only have exogenous origins.

In contrast to this “calculus approach,” historical and sociological

institutionalists consider the question of how institutions evolve—therein

allowing for the possibility of changing preferences. Historical institutionalism (e.g. Fioretos 2011; Pierson 2004; Thelen 1999) focuses on

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