Americans tend to be skeptical about or troubled by the notion of regional integration in Asia. There is some basis for concern, but the advantages of integration are likely to exceed the cost to the United States. An integrated Asia, the process of which has been shaped by the United States and like-minded partners, should strengthen the international system that Washington has labored to build over the last half century, reinvigorating and strengthening the norms and principles that have provided its foundation.

Defining “Asian integration” can be problematic for functional and geographic reasons. For my purposes, the term refers to East Asia, which I equate institutionally with ASEAN Plus Three. That narrowly conceived geographical scope allows me to demand more when it comes to functions. Meaningful integration means more than the loose confederation that defines ASEAN (its ambitions to create “communities” notwithstanding) but it doesn’t require the detailed legal framework of the European Union. At a minimum, it includes a regionwide free trade area, a political superstructure to express its collective will (no matter how sharp its teeth to demand conformity with its pronouncements) and recognition by the rest of the world that it is a meaningful political unit. Even that scaled-back objective may be too much. For many, Asian nations are too diverse, too committed to their (relatively) new sovereignty, and the benefits of integration are too diffuse to justify the costs. But if those formidable obstacles can be surmounted – and integration is proceeding, fitfully for sure, but there is progress nonetheless — most US observers worry that integration would come at their expense.

Key Point

  • The three main objections to Asian integration are: 1) that a regional economic unit would divert trade from the US; 2)that a regional economic unit would be dominated by China; and 3)that the rise of Asia and the subsequent empowerment of China could alter the way the world works
  • Countries that are drawn into China’s economic orbit still seek to limit the spread of Beijing’s influence and eagerly seek counterbalances to Chinese power • Asian nations seek to integrate because they believe that a unified Asia is needed to give them a political voice commensurate with their rising economic power
  • US policy makers should see Asian integration as a way of balancing the scale and binding China in a web of commitments • Washington needs to develop an Asia-Pacific strategy where Asia can play a key role as both a focus of US foreign policy in its own right and a powerful means to achieve broader US interests

Read the rest of the Policy Commentary here

By Brad Glosserman, Executive Director, Pacific Forum CSIS (Honolulu, Hawaii)