Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

East Asia not US playground

By Tao Wenzhao (China Daily) Updated: 2011-11-19 07:53

How to facilitate East Asian integration is the topic shared by leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other relevant countries, who are scheduled to meet in Bali, Indonesia, for the East Asian Summit on Saturday and who have already attended a series of preceding meetings.

As a key player in the region, China has had a consistently positive approach toward regional integration. Besides, the country's reform and opening-up over the past three decades have expedited its integration into the world economy and participation in globalization and regional integration processes.

In the context of globalization, regional economic integration remains an irreversible trend and a basic path for all countries to follow to realize mutual benefit, win-win results and common development.

China and the ASEAN have set a good example in developing bilateral ties. China, on its part, has been extending full support to the integration efforts made by ASEAN member countries and trying to consolidate relations with the bloc since the establishment of bilateral dialogue partnership in 1991.

During and after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, China offered as much assistance as possible to severely affected ASEAN member countries to help them overcome their difficulties. This helped China further in winning the trust of beneficiary nations and contributed much to their decision to establish a China-ASEAN free trade area. The full operation of the free trade area from January 1, 2010, has elevated bilateral economic and trade ties to new heights. As a result, China is now the largest trading partner of the ASEAN.

In Northeast Asia, too, China is committed to pushing for regional integration. Following a cooperative mechanism that China, Japan and the Republic of Korea started 10 years ago, the three countries have set up a regular summit meeting mechanism. And the establishment of the secretariat in the ROK in September has signaled a significant step toward regularizing the meeting.

Regional integration is a process of consultations conducted among relevant countries on an equal footing. All countries, whatever their economic levels and scales, should deal with each other under the principles of mutual respect and equal consultations. In this process, no country should force its own criteria on others, and standards and rules should be made only after negotiations among all the countries.

Despite their different development levels and national conditions, all countries have their distinctive advantages and disadvantages and thus different interests and demands. Therefore, they should try to respect the interests of others while pushing forward their own proposals. Only if these conditions are fulfilled can regional integration be advanced on a solid foundation.

East Asian countries have to face another thorny issue: How to deal with the United States in their push for regional integration. Despite being a non-Asian country and despite lying on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the US has been on high vigilance against East Asian integration that, in its eyes, could lead to its exclusion from the region's affairs. When former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama raised the concept of an East Asia Community in 2009, in which no seat would be left for the US, American Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell immediately declared that no East Asian integration was possible without Washington.

China has held an unambiguous stance toward East Asian integration and insists that it should be an open and inclusive process. This has been enumerated by the views of its leaders on many international platforms. President Hu Jintao reaffirmed this stance during his meeting with US President Barack Obama on the latter's visit to China in November 2009 and when Hu visited the US in January. At the just concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Hu reiterated China's stance during his meeting with Obama, saying China and the US both should respect the justifiable interests of the other in the Asia-Pacific region.

At a time when there are still many uncertainties in the global economy, all countries should remain cautious of their efforts to push for regional integration.

The US is now pushing for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) across the Asia-Pacific, with the multiple purpose of boosting its foreign trade, creating jobs in the US as well as making trade rules in the region. It is believed that the aim of such a move by Washington is to contain a fast-growing China and to maintain its ebbing dominance in the region. The preconditions set by the US for TPP membership, such as labor and environmental standards, are difficult for developing countries in the region to fulfill.

A majority of countries in Asia-Pacific are developing nations and there are many economic and social variations and diversities among them. Thus, in the push for any regional integration, such variations and diversities should be respected and a gradual and sound way adopted to complete the process.

The author is a researcher at the Center for China-US Relations at Tsinghua University.

(China Daily 11/19/2011 page5)

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