Due to various factors, both internal and external, there have been multiple conflicts and problems in East Asia in recent years, marked by an interplay of cooperation and competition. Where the regional economic and security cooperation is headed has drawn special attention. At present, East Asian cooperation mainly features the senior officials’ meetings of the ASEAN Plus Three, the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) held in Laos and the EAS to be held this year. The result has been compromise and dynamic balance reached by main regional and external forces through mutual adaptation and acceptance.
Mutual adaptation is a dynamic process, based on objective factors such as balance of power and the situation and governance in the region, as well as subjective factors such as the vision and will for cooperation. Economically, East Asia is the most dynamic region in the world, with relevant factors fast at play, resulting in brisk evolution of the regional cooperation configuration. Despite the security issues in Northeast Asia and the South China Sea region, there are signs that mutual adaptation among East Asian countries has deepened, which may lead to a new balance in the near future. This balance could be more stable than that established before the international financial crisis, and parties are more likely to push forward East Asian cooperation on the basis of such a balance.
In terms of the vision for cooperation, following more than two decades of rivalry, East Asian countries have come to realize that in the short run, the establishment of a top-down supranational organization is not feasible. They have then focused on pursuing practical cooperation in economic, financial, security, social development and other functional areas under the principles of incrementalism, differentiation and actual results. Simply put, they have shifted from a European model to an Asian model. Centering on these functional areas, East Asian countries have established a series of parallel cooperation mechanisms that offer good opportunities for regional cooperation. After overcoming some tough difficulties, East Asian cooperation may achieve some major breakthroughs. For instance, in the just-concluded senior officials’ meetings in Laos, China proposed that the ASEAN Plus Three should focus on cooperation in the areas of finance, agriculture, poverty reduction, connectivity, production capacity and cultural and social development, the EAS should focus on both socioeconomic development and political security, and the ARF on non-traditional security.
The current regional cooperation structure accommodates the interests and comfort levels of multiple parties, and opens up new space for practical cooperation. Ultimately, the regional order is shaped by economic relations. Capital, technologies, products and human resources in the region mainly flow among China, Japan, the ROK and ASEAN member states. The ASEAN Plus Three mechanism is the centerpiece of East Asia cooperation. The enlargement of the EAS reflects the balanced growth of various forces and interests in the region and readjustment of their positions, which may lead to the final settlement of some issues, including the fostering of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The parties just concluded a new round of negotiations on the issue in Australia and have reaffirmed on many occasions that they will try to finish the negotiations by the end of 2016, which, if accomplished, will be a great boon to East Asia cooperation. In a sense, the ASEAN community, which was established in 2015, RCEP and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) may promote practical cooperation in the region at the levels of ASEAN, East Asia and the Asia-Pacific respectively.
In terms of the relations within and out of the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has generated a new round of interaction in both East Asia and the Asia-Pacific. Given the huge size of the TPP, such mutual adaptation will be a long-term process, and produce predictable results. It will be a process of destructive creation. On the one hand, the TPP has played a destructive role in East Asian cooperation, already disturbing the existing cooperation. On the other hand, it has highlighted the main challenges East Asian countries may face in the next few years, shaped the overall environment for future East Asian cooperation and set the tone for long-term decision making.
In terms of China’s relations with its neighbors, there are increasing signs of mutual adaptation and acceptance. To a large extent, China’s participation in the international system after the Cold War started with its cooperation with ASEAN. Many new ideas and approaches of China’s diplomacy after the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China derive from the experience China has accumulated during its cooperation with ASEAN. For instance, the Belt and Road Initiative has drawn inspiration from China-ASEAN connectivity, the AIIB from the China-ASEAN Cooperation Fund, and China’s free trade zone strategy from the negotiation process of FTAAP. Through mutual adaptation, China has gained invaluable experience in neighborhood diplomacy, and the country’s neighbors have gradually gotten used to China’s rise.
In conclusion, mutual adaptation has resulted in an evolution toward a new normal and a new balance within a certain period of time, and created a favorable environment for regional peace, cooperation and development. In spite of all the chaos we are seeing right now, there is order in a deeper sense. Countries in the region should seize the fleeting opportunities to promote regional cooperation and win-win progress.