Looking back at the past four months, it is apparent that the region has been experiencing an unusually high number of military and political conflicts that challenge the prospect of further integration. The idea of regionalism in Asia over the past decade has been one that is driven by economics, either those that arises from the needs to solve common problems or from trying to meet expectations. The economic prospect seems enticing; China is one huge market for its neighbours and so is an integrated ASEAN. There has been initiatives both from governments and non-state actors to deepen economic cooperation and increase (popular?) cultural exchange. It is quite plain to see that the East and Southeast Asian countries are highly interdependent—the region-wide economic crisis of 1997 is one example. Hence, the popular view is that serious conflicts between these countries are impossible.
However, this assessment ignores one grim reality: there are many areas in the region where political disputes and armed conflicts are still ongoing. Myanmar is fighting the Kachin rebels to regain control over its northern borders by force and despite its alleged shift towards democracy and openness, the bloody ethnic conflict with the Rohingya minorities has destabilize its neighbours (Bangladesh, Thailand). The southern borders of Thailand and the Philippines are the breeding ground of regional terrorists. Thailand and Cambodia are locked in border dispute. In defense against a military invasion, Malaysia killed several Filipinos who claimed to be fighting for the rightful heir of the Sultanate of Sulu (another story for another day, I guess). Let’s not forget the islands: the South China Sea, Dokdo/Takeshima, Diaoyu/Senkaku, and Taiwan/Taiwan. And to top it all, the DPRK with its charismatic leader, who at the age of 30 has the privilege of meeting Dennis Rodman and owning nuclear weapons.
These conflicts, I believe, shows the uniqueness of the region. First, most of these conflicts are, of course, not unsolvable (except the last two?)—these states are open to multilateral negotiations which apparently are quite effective. Secondly, other conflicts are ignored once they have served the political needs of the states in question (e.g. do we hear anything about South China Sea recently?). Thirdly, economics and trades are hardly receiving serious dents as a result of these conflicts. It could even be argued that economic factor serves as a brake so the minor conflicts will not turn too serious. Finally, existing regional organizations have no capacity to solve these problems, not that they are supposed to function as such. Disputes are negotiated bilaterally or multilaterally—informality, as expressed in the so-called ASEAN Way, might explain more than just the existing norm in the organization but in the region as well. In this sense, Southeast and East Asian process of cooperation and integration might be better understood by looking outside formal organizations.
Since it is not my intention to end this entry with a sense of optimism, I would like to add with one final gloomy note: the survival of ASEAN and other lesser cooperation initiatives lies on the fact that they are unpolitical. The attempt by ASEAN members to form a unitary voice in opposition to China regarding the island disputes last year has failed miserably, whereas the ASEAN Human Rights Charter has been criticized for being ineffectual—inevitable, I’d say, since these states prefer to hold on to their sovereignty. However, the creation of TPP, the NAFTA on steroid, is precisely going to infuse politics into economic issue—critics have pointed out the exclusion of China in the partnership and argued that TPP is another strategy of containment espoused by the United States. Assuming we survive the next nuclear war, the TPP is certainly something to look forward to.