ASEAN and East Asian International Relations – Regional Delusion

ASEAN and East Asian International Relations

Authors:    David Martin Jones, M.L.R.Smith

ISBN:          978847200860

Publisher: Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham

Year:          2006

Price:         $50.00


Reviewed by Susan Engel, Lecturer, University of Sydney, Australia

Jones and Smith’s book is a critique of both of the existence of ASEAN as a political, economic and security institution and force and of the theoretical and practical engagement of community of scholars who have studied ASEAN and the Southeast/ East Asian region. There is some confusion regarding the ‘region’ they are actually studying. Of course ‘regions’ are amorphous and difficult to define and the focus on ASEAN provides a self-defined link to a region but as, the title of the book itself states, they look at not only ASEAN but East Asia too. The early and later chapters largely focus on ASEAN but the chapters that cover economic cooperation and the so-called East Asian Development model refer equally to East Asia. So it is not always clear which countries are being discussed where, which is problematic in such a diverse region.

The book starts with an examination of what it terms the ‘Sovietology’ of ASEAN studies. It argues that, during the 1990s, new approaches to studying ASEAN developed out of the neoinstitutionalist, constructivist, postmodern, and post-Marxist influences on international relations and that the limitations of these theoretical positions is the basis of fundamental ‘delusion’ in the study of Southeast and East Asian studies; though it is constructivism that is their particular focus or target. Despite this focus on theoretical weaknesses, Jones and Smith do not feel it necessary to detail their own theoretical position; however, extrapolating from various statements in the book, it seems that realism ﷓ in its British empiricist form – is their preferred theoretical position.

Jones and Smith continue the ‘Sovietology’ metaphor to compare the failures of Southeast Asian studies in predicting the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 with failure to foresee the fall of communism in 1989. In particular, they attribute the failure to predict the Asian Financial Crisis to “theoretical incontinence” of Southeast Asian studies, which dates “from the end of the Cold War and the assault upon the realist/empiricist paradigm of international relations” (p.41). The Sovietology parallel is an interesting one here because there is little doubt that the field was dominated by both realist and neorealist scholars and despite this, they equally failed in Jones and Smith’s test of prediction.

The two chapters on the political economy of East Asia and ASEAN are a largely one-sided review of the literature on East Asian growth that privilege explanations critiquing the role of the state and of regional cooperation in the region’s growth. There is at times, a contradictory logic at work, for example and one point Jones and Smith lament that “ASEAN legitimated the pursuit of state-led economic development and political consolidation” (p.46). Yet this gives ASEAN a role and significance that they spend much of the book denying.

In terms of the Asian Financial Crisis, Jones and Smith come down strongly on the side of the debate that focuses on structural problems in the region’s economies and given little time or schrift to the debate regarding the role of speculation and contagion. They emphasize that the region’s economies tend to suffer from structural problems (p.130), which is likely to generate few nay-sayers given that we are, in Southeast Asia, at least, still analyzing predominately post-colonial, rapidly developing economies. What may be more controversial is that their analysis of supposedly necessary ‘reforms’ for these economies does not discuss at all how such reforms would impact ordinary citizens or the environment. At the end of the day, their analysis is in the mode of so much neoliberal politico-economic proselytizing that Pacific Asian countries should have regulatory and financial systems like the West’s even though they are at a very different level of development and have different levels of bureaucratic, legal, technical, etc skills and competencies.

Overall on developmental states, Jones and Smith conclude that:
…the state that adapted most effectively to the opportunities afforded by the revolutionary internationalization of financial markets was not the strong, bureaucratically driven Asian developmental version in either its Northeast or Southeast Asian manifestations… By the early 1990s, the most effective competition states were those that enforced decisions that emerged from the world markets. From a comparative perspective, the long-term developmental programmes and strategic capitalism practised by the developmental states of Pacific Asia became dysfunctional in an emerging global financial market (p.140).
The analysis continues to emphasis open capital markets, flexible labor markets and “western rules of disclosure” (p.142). Scarcely two years since their book was published we are in the midst of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the same rules of disclosure do not seem so efficient. Indeed, the internationalization of financial markets no longer seems as rosy a development as Jones and Smith suggest.

Interestingly, Jones and Smith argue that “ASEAN Plus Three should really be viewed as ‘Three Plus ASEAN’” (p.162). They find that, since 1997, ASEAN has been of little relevance to Northeast Asia but that Northeast Asia is increasingly significant for Southeast Asia. Thus ASEAN + 3 is seen as a way for Southeast Asia to stay relevant but it is a way for Northeast Asia to “explore their regional ambitions and vie for influence in Southeast Asia” (p.163). This incisive piece of analysis undoubtedly explains why ASEAN has moved away from ASEAN + 3 to focus on the East Asia Summit, which currently includes Australia, India and New Zealand – presumably largely as some counter balance to potential Chinese dominance and “the Sino-Japanese competition for Southeast Asian influence that the ASEAN Plus Three project must be understood” (p.165). Jones and Smith jump from this insight to the conclusion that this reveals purely “the naked pursuit of traditional, realist, state interests” in regional cooperation efforts (p.165). Their blindness to the possibilities of region building or other cooperative interests operating alongside pursuit of interests, indicates the kind of narrowness they accuse constructivism of realism’s continued privileging of dichotomized either/or knowledge framing that has not served it well in analyzing international relations (see Vasquez 1998).

Much of the book’s thesis regarding ASEAN’s irrelevance is based on its admittedly ineffectual role during the Asian Financial Crisis. This claim is backed by only a very limited discussion (see p.139) – but the more pertinent point is that ASEAN was not set up to provide monetary cooperation during times of balance of payments or currency crises; this is the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) role. Yet Asian’s leaders dissatisfaction with the response of the IMF, did in fact lead ASEAN + 3 to develop the Chiang Mai initiative in May 2000, which provides a framework for a series of bilateral currency swaps between members allowing pooling of hard currency. Jones and Smith do not discuss the Chiang Mai initiative even though it is potentially indicative of deeper economic cooperation evolving in the region. Though, as I’m sure Jones and Smith would agree, there is a need to see it in action before making too many claims regarding its significance. Nevertheless, Chiang Mai is a key part of the developments that have made the IMF seem increasingly irrelevant over the past couple of years, which is indeed a notable development.

Jones and Smith portray ASEAN trade cooperation, through the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), negatively. They rightly point out that the international trade regime had been friendly to the governments of the region for much of the postwar period (p.109) Their overall analysis of trade cooperation is static. They argue that the level of intra-ASEAN trade is a mere(!) 20 per cent but do not analyze whether trade patterns have been changing over time. Since their book was written the level of intra-ASEAN trade has jumped to 25 per cent of the region’s trade and the number of goods traded within the region has grown (ASEAN Secretariat, 2007).

Overall, this is a well written and controversial book and one which does effectively highlight the tendency visible in some academic literature to overstate the case for the significance of ASEAN and Pacific Asian cooperation. However, equally it simply ignores much of the more critical literature on the region and judges regional cooperation from the ‘standards’ of Western developed nations, which renders it quite dissatisfying.