Friday, February 25, 2011

Four Scenarios of Asian Regional Cooperation: Amitav Acharya

In this paper, I sketch four possible scenarios of regional cooperation in Asia. While these are not mutually exclusive, they do possess distinctive characteristics which will lead to different types of regionalism and regional order in Asia.


This type of cooperation assumes the primacy of great powers in regional order. Instead of competing with and balancing each other, great powers develop a common interest in the management of regional affairs. The weaker states are marginalized, or at best play a secondary role. The regional system remains anarchic, but the great powers develop rules, interactions and institutions not only to reduce conflicts among themselves, but also to manage other conflicts in the region.

The original model of a concert system is the European Concert that took shape after the defeat of Napoleon. The obvious candidates for membership in a contemporary Asian concert are: China, Japan, India and the United States, and possibly Russia. But an Asian concert may have distinctive features not found in the European model, especially because it has to accommodate ASEAN, whose members are weak states and small powers, but enjoy substantial collective diplomatic clout in regional affairs. Moreover, an Asian concert, unlike the European one, cannot be founded on common political values, unless and until China goes through a process of democratic transition (and Russia reverses it democratic backsliding).

Under a great power concert, existing ASEAN-led regional institutions will lose their importance. The great powers will develop their own forum of interactions, including frequent usage of bilateral and “minilateral” summit diplomacy. The Asian concert will make its own rules and mechanisms for conflict management, which will essentially cater to the interests of the great powers themselves. There could be no territorial adjustments or conflict resolution without their consent. There will be a strong bias against revolutionary political change in the region. Regional mechanisms will become instruments of great power intervention in the internal affairs of the weaker and smaller states of Asia.


A great power concert assumes a multiplicity of great powers, or a multipolar regional system. While such multipolarity is quite likely to characterise the Asian power structure (one might say it has already become a reality), it does not preclude a regional hierarchy with China at the top. A hierarchy is different from hegemony or a pure balance of power system, which implies preponderance or equilibrium of power respectively. Hierarchy is conceived as a benign ordering of powers, with none, including the top player, exercising absolute power and authority.

It is sometimes said that hierarchy is consistent with time-honoured Asian values. Just as hierarchy is accepted and followed in Asian societies and domestic politics, the argument goes, it should also function as an legitimate organizing principle of Asian international order. And in the Asian context, the natural candidate for the room at the top in a regional hierarchy is China. David Kang has put forth an elaborate argument about hierarchy in Asia. China’s rise, he argues, returns Asia “back to the future” by recreating a Sino-centric regional order that prevailed during the tributary system. Moreover, he argues that such an order will be a stable one, because when China was rich and powerful, Asian was stable. He dismisses realist pessimism about Asia’s future resembling Europe’s (late 19th century and early 20th century) past. Instead of being “ripe for rivalry”, to use Aaron Friedberg’s phrase, Asia will be “primed for peace”, to quote Stephen Van Evera’s metaphor for Europe after the Cold War.

If a hierarchical regional order develops in Asia, what would regional cooperation look like? First, China will be the natural leader of regional institutions, thereby supplanting ASEAN. China’s interests will drive the agenda of Asian regionalism, which might translate into great prominence for ASEAN Plus Three or similar East Asian institutions to the detriment of the ASEAN Regional Forum and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, as well as ASEAN itself. Regional economic cooperation will be more about informal “developmental regionalism”, rather than trade liberalisation. In the security sphere, China is unlikely to favour the creation of “problem-solving” regional mechanisms that engage in dispute settlement or conflict resolution. On the other hand, as long as China remains under communist rule, Asian regional organizations will not take on the role of promoting human rights and democracy. They will be essentially wedded to Westphalian sovereignty.


A third scenario of regional cooperation is the development of a regional community. A community implies a relationship of deep socialization, trust and convergence of basic values. Regional communities can be economic, social and security-oriented. They can have different degrees of institutionalization.

An economic community in its technical sense refers to a free trade area and a customs union and a common market with free mobility of labour, capital and services across national boundaries. A socio-cultural community is characterized by a sense of collective identity, forged over interactions in social, cultural, educational and related areas. A security community is a group of states in which war has become “unthinkable”. Currently, ASEAN represents an attempt to develop a subregional community with three pillars: economic, security and socio-cultural, although it has a long way to go in realizing these objectives.

Some urge that Asia should aspire to become a multifaceted community just as ASEAN is striving to become. Proposals for an Asian economic community have been made by India). Visions have been articulated (such as by the East Asian Vision Group) for the development of an Asian (or East Asian) cultural community, with its own set of shared values and regional identity. Others have raised the possibility of an Asian security community.

Under this community scenario, existing Asian regional institutions will continue to be “led” by ASEAN which will remain at the “driver seat” of regional institutions such as ARF, APT and the East Asian Summit. The real challenge would be whether Asian regional organizations will continue to be informal, non-legalistic, and process-oriented, or go through a deepening of economic integration and security cooperation as would be necessary under the common market and “security community” models. Asian groupings will also continue to be inclusive, but this will conflict with the need for developing shared values that must underpin a community of any sort. An Asian regional community, if it is ever to materialize, would be different from its European counterpart, reflecting the great political and cultural diversity of the region.


A fourth scenario for Asian regional cooperation may be called a consociational regional order. Derived from the notion of consociationalism in multi-ethnic societies, a consociational regional order is marked a number of features. One of them is the existence of cultural diversity. Another is an uneven and multipolar configuration of power among states rather than absolute dominance of a single power. These powers may balance each other, thereby ensuring stability. Unlike in a concert, the powerful states in a consociation respect decisions of the majority of the actors, rather than be governed by the whims of the great powers alone. Unlike a community, a consociation has no natural sense of collective identity or “we feeling”, but a sense of togetherness is constructed out of regular interactions. And while a regional consociation is not free from serious divisions and conflicts, these are managed through diplomatic processes and institutions so that they never reach breaking point.

Regional cooperation under a consociational framework is induced negatively, rather than due to a positive convergence of political values or collective identity. In other words, states cooperate not because they love and respect each other (although some may do so to some others), but because the price of non-cooperation will be too high under existing conditions of high security and economic interdependence. Conflict (economic or political) will be avoided not because the members of ASEAN, ARF, APEC or EAS are bound by shared values and common identity, but their members view conflict avoidance as a necessary precondition for economic growth and development.

Conceptually, a consociational regional order combines elements of realism (balance of power), liberalism (especially economic interdependence and functional institutions), and constructivism (socially constructed, as opposed to naturally given, regional identity and norms). Figure 1 represents this scenario theoretically.


Neither a great power concert nor a Sinocentric hierarchy is likely to materialise in Asia under present or foreseeable conditions. An Asian concert is precluded by the lack of convergence of political values among Asia’s great powers, and by the decades of regional deference to ASEAN, a club of smaller nations, which cannot be easily marginalized in the management of regional order.

China will never acquire the relative power to recreate the Sino-centric regional order, especially under conditions that are vastly different from the past. The simultaneous rise of Japan and India and the omnipresence of the United States in Asia militate against the possibility of a Chinese-centred hierarchy which is also incompatible with the Westphalian principles of sovereignty and equality that China itself espouses.

Asia is abuzz with the rhetoric of community-building, but a consociation is what might really be possible. The community model might apply at the subregional level in Southeast Asia through ASEAN (although some would contest it), but replicating such a community at the regional level of Asia is far more daunting. Asia’s cultural diversity and emerging multipolarity create the possibility of a regional consociation, in which the great powers as a regional minority accommodate the interests of the weaker nations who are in the majority. Conflicts, while never absent, are controlled before they lead to systemic collapse. The absence of shared values or collective identity is offset by a continuous process of socialization that reduces cultural barriers and promotes habits of cooperation. Such a regional consociation is the best Asia can really hope for and would be a singular achievement.

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