What model for Hatoyama's East Asian Community

Monday, 23 November 2009 12:30

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been pushing the idea of an East Asian Community.  Could Europe be a model for such a Community?  Europe is the only real example of this type of Community.  And as evidenced by the recent nomination of a European President, step-by-step, it seems to be working.

Europe really began with the creation in 1952 of the European Coal and Steel Community with the following member countries: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and West Germany.  So at the start Europe had a group of very developed countries.  This meant that Europe never really had a problem of lowest common denominator.  New members were expected to rise to a high level.  To this very day, new European members have to commit to improving their policies to existing European standards.  And subsidies from Brussels can make a lot of difference to infrastructure, as Ireland and Portugal can testify.

The East Asian Community would be very different.  It would start with at least the ASEAN member countries and China, Japan and Korea.  So at one end would be Laos and Myanmar, and at the other end would be Singapore.  How could high level policy standards be imposed on such a group?  

Further, although Europe has diversity between the North and the South, and now the East, it has nothing like the diversity that exists in East Asia.  Diversity in East Asia is immense in terms of political systems, national cultures, languages and religions.  Developing coherent and harmonious values, policies and standards would be a great challenge, may be impossible.

European countries have surrendered and pooled sovereignty through common policies in the areas of agriculture, competition policy, currency and monetary policy, trade and to some extent development co-operation.  It is difficult to imagine many East Asian countries, especially the non-democratic ones sharing sovereignty with their neighbours. 

Europe is a single economic space with the free flow of goods and (in theory) services, as well as people.  Despite the tangled noodle bowl of trade and economic partnership agreements, many barriers exist between the East Asian nations.  This is especially so for agriculture, services and movements of people.  Some countries are extremely opposed to migration.

After a century of conflict, Europe's major protagonists were able to bury the hatchet, agree to co-operate and achieve reconciliation.  In East Asia, reconciliation between the three protagonists of the North East seems a long way off, despite many bumbling attempts on several sides.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the notion of a community seems inconsistent with many East Asian countries' attachment to ethnicity as a basis for national identity.  In Japan, people with Korean origins dating back decades or more are still not accepted as Japanese.  Such ethnicity notions have substantially disappeared in Europe (even in Germany) thanks in large part to the large flows of migration within the continent.  This means that, especially among the youth, a European identity is emerging, with people accepting that we can all have multiple identities.

This all sounds a bit pessimistic.  But in time, with generational change, things may evolve in East Asia.  And I am sure that the region will develop its own concept of community.  But East Asian countries will not be able to escape the requirement to give up something of themselves to be part of a bigger community.  And ASEAN countries would have to give up the culture of non-inteference in each other's affairs.  Can they do that?