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Saturday, Oct. 15, 2005

Asia's tough but not impossible journey

LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps the prospects of would-be Asian political unity can best be described as a "pipe dream." But even that description might be too optimistic, unless you imagine a water pipe filled with wildly psychedelic substances that are imbibed in huge amounts!

It's true, the sober reality of erstwhile political integration in Asia tends to bring everyone involved down to earth very rapidly. Just look at what is happening even in Europe. There, the much-touted European Union is something of a sudden mess, Britain and France are at each other's throats yet again, and these days Brussels, headquarters of the EU, is sprouting more rancor than reason.

Europe is self-destructive enough on its own, but now it has the United States to thank for its further disarray. To a minor measure of astonishment, the Bush administration has just proposed an impressive array of significant compromises to lower America's infamous iron wall of agricultural subsidies. The goal -- says chief U.S. Trade Representative Bob Portman -- is to breathe new life into the so-called Doha round of trade talks. Hong Kong is to host the next session on Dec. 13-18.

The American compromise bid is worthy, but the political reaction in Europe is likely to be reactionary. France's farmers are unlikely to bow to Paris. They are more likely to want to turn the capital's internationalist deputies into plowshares! The rise of a politically integrated Europe seems stymied for the foreseeable future.

The leaders of Asia might want to take full notice of the European disarray and consider what they might do. They can react in one or two ways. They might simply take some comfort from the unseemly mess and go about their business. Or, they might decide to seize the moment, as Europe stumbles further, and imagine in a positive sense how Asia could and should now rise.

Before raucous Asia-wide laughing erupts over such a silly thought, let me acknowledge the manifold difficulties, accept as uninspirational the recent failed talks in Tokyo between China and Japan over tension-intensifying territorial disputes in the East China Sea, and note the widespread view (which I do not share) that the recent round of six-party talks in Beijing over North Korea were not an advance but a phony accord.

While not ignoring all of the above, let us imagine that Asia's moment to move forward as a region while Europe slides back is upon us. The key element is leadership. Someone needs to step forward, organize a new framework for regional Asian discussion, and agree to initiate a process of thinking about political integration by proposing, hosting and then institutionalizing such talks.

That leader needs to be China, the regional discussion needs to be organized along time-honored Chinese negotiating principles and all Asian nations must be invited to the table, whether democracies or military dictatorships.

As with the six-party talks, the goal of the first round -- let us call it the "Beijing Round" -- is to seek to assemble a set of agreed-on principles for the furtherance of regional political integration. These principles need to be extremely generalized, even to the point of arguable vapidity, but real enough on the ground floor that they can serve as an opening foundation on which some kind of new regional political edifice can be constructed.

The very intense process of discussing, debating and agreeing on these principles could create a momentum for further refinement, specification and, eventually, organization.

But is another multinational venue really needed? After all, Asia already has in place the ASEAN Plus-3 framework (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea).

True enough; perhaps this framework would suffice. But the very idea of significant Asian political integration is a long-shot. What is under proposal here is an entirely new framework for which the agenda would be solely and exclusively organized around sculpting a new structure of peaceful Asian cooperation.

Leadership should start with China but must not end there. The Chinese need to understand and accept that any framework that excludes Japan is inherently politically unstable; history teaches us that. And every couple of years the venue for the Asian Framework ought to change -- let it start in Beijing, then perhaps move to Tokyo, then perhaps to Seoul, then perhaps to Jakarta, then perhaps to New Delhi, and so on.

In most international negotiations progress is often held hostage to a given set of irritating particulars. By contrast, the Asian Framework would be designed to offer the nation-states of Asia a new architecture of political cooperation and integration through a consensus of general principles, rather than an encyclopedia of particular grievances that would amount to a killing field of new ideas.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Copyright 2005 Tom Plate

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