Reviewed by P.M. Yeophantong, PhD Candidate, Department of International Relations, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, The Australian National University
Although the concept of ‘interregionalism’ – understood as referring to ‘processes of cooperation between regions that are initiated by governments or the bureaucracies of regional organizations’ (p. 6) – is fairly new to the International Relations (IR) discipline, it has nonetheless provoked novel debates on the changing contours of international cooperation and interdependence within a globalizing world. It has also gained considerable resonance among European Studies scholars, given the European Union’s increasingly prominent role in the management of world affairs.
This edited volume by Jürgen Rüland et al addresses this emerging interregionalism through the prism of Asian-European relations, as it interrogates the potential for such relations to serve as a basis for global governance. The purpose of Asian-European Relations is supposedly not so much about forwarding a ‘new theory of interregionalism’, but rather to review and bring together varied interdisciplinary perspectives on this fledgling subject (p. xi). The essays featured in this volume undoubtedly reflect this interdisciplinary leaning, with some focusing on conventional security and economic issues and others looking at non-traditional areas like human rights and institutional democratization.
The book is divided into four parts with twelve chapters altogether. The first section is theoretical in orientation; the second and third sections focus on empirical issues; and the fourth section contains a summary of the issues dealt with in the volume. In Jürgen Rüland and Cornelia Storz’s Introduction, they contextualize the debate surrounding the development of interregionalism in IR by examining the evolution of Asian-European relations since the early 1970s. This is followed by Mathew Doidge’s chapter on conceptualizing regional organisations as international actors through the concept of ‘actorness’, which refers to the capacity of an entity to ‘purposively act in the international system’ (p. 43). Through this concept, Doidge seeks to explain the ‘likely outcome when qualitatively different regional actors meet’ (p. 32), arguing that the asymmetry in capabilities between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ actors will inevitably affect the outcomes of interregional dialogues. Of particular interest here is the notion of how interregionalism can possibly lead to not only greater integration but also, conversely, to regionalism amongst weaker actors. This of course underscores the dual nature of globalization itself, which has led to both global interconnectedness and fragmentation.
Chapter Three by Doris Fischer analyzes regional trade agreements within Asia and Europe, and considers the extent to which such agreements can contribute to global governance. She concludes that whilst multiple agreements can underwrite global governance, they can also be fairly cost-intensive (p. 58). Yet one problem arises with Fischer’s essay: not only does it prove to be more conceptual than ‘empirical’ in orientation, its focus on ‘regional’ agreements and economic integration also underscores an inherent tension that runs through the volume between ‘regionalism’ and ‘interregionalism’ which, at times, seem to be used almost interchangeably. Greater conceptual clarity that builds on the frameworks proposed in the first two chapters would have helped in enhancing the analytical lucidity of the discussion here.
Hanns G. Hilpert and Klaus-Jochem Kecker’s chapter, in one sense, works to complement Fischer’s as it fills in some empirical gaps. Their analysis is noteworthy in how it spotlights the import of Asian-European economic cooperation on global trade and investment, illustrating that, contrary to conventional belief, this economic relationship is by no means the ‘weakest link’ in the ‘global economic triangle’ between North America, Europe and Asia (p. 73).
Following from this discussion on the economic dimensions of EU-Asian engagement is a consideration of its political implications. Chapter Five by Howard Loewen and Dirk Nabers examines, more specifically, the case of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and its contribution to the global institutional architecture. They ultimately posit that ASEM has, in fact, made ‘no contribution to the stability of the global governance system’ (p. 109). While this is debatable, they note how material and ideational factors have influenced the outcomes of interregional negotiations, oftentimes resulting in cooperation problems. This is, of course, not a particularly ‘novel’ observation – most studies in IR have more or less acknowledged the centrality of both ideational and material concerns to international politics. In this sense, it might have added to the discussion had the authors reflected further on how negotiation, and its accompanying communicative processes, could potentially work to inform and alter the interests and identities of the actors involved. As constructivists have long argued, interests are by no means immutable.
Chapter Six by Frank Umbach explores interregional security cooperation between Europe and Asia, with a focus on ASEAN. Though this is somewhat of a minor detail, it does need note that a definitional imprecision surfaces in the chapter’s very title – that is, in the use of the terms ‘interregional’ and ‘transregional’. Rüland and Storz mention the term ‘transregionalism’ in their introduction, but do not expand on its nuances vis-à-vis interregionalism (instead they provide a footnote with some additional readings). For readers who are not too familiar with this terrain, it would have been helpful had the conceptual differences between these terms been elucidated earlier on. That aside, this chapter does expertly point to the major issues of concern in the EU’s security policy towards Northeast and Southeast Asia, giving the reader a very good overview of its evolution and present trajectory. One issue arises, though, in his treatment of Europe’s relations with Northeast Asia. There are certain parts in his discussion which resemble more of a ‘stand-alone’, focused analysis of EU and Chinese security policies, instead of one that is situated within the broader context of interregionalism.
Moving away from traditional security issues, Martina Timmermann, in Chapter Seven, manages to make the case for a cautiously optimistic view vis-à-vis developments in EU-Asia human rights policies. Particularly laudable is her ability to shed some ‘impartial’ light on an area that easily succumbs to polarized polemics. Werner Pascha, in Chapter Eight, then evaluates more specifically Europe’s policies toward the Asian Development Bank. He makes a noteworthy observation here when he forwards the notion of ‘cross-regionalism’ – understood as when ‘non-regional (state) actors from Europe take part in a scheme set up for regional issues elsewhere (in Asia)’ (p. 175) – to illustrate Europe’s growing role in the crucial area of ‘development politics’.
The third section of this volume, which concerns the (often overlooked) roles of non-governmental actors in Europe-Asia relations, is especially interesting. Chapter Nine by Andreas Moerke engages in a more ‘micro-level’ perspective by looking at merger and acquisition dynamics between Japanese and European enterprises. Unfortunately, there is rather a disconnect between this chapter and the others, as Moerke’s analysis fits uneasily with the general gist of the volume and its broader focus on interregional relations. The analysis often sounds more like a country-specific case study, primarily concerned with the practices of Japanese companies. As a consequence, how its findings feed into the book’s central questions on EU-Asia interregional relations is not immediately apparent.
Chapters Ten and Eleven, respectively by Katja Freistein and Sebastian Bersick, notably stand out given the understudied nature of their issue-areas. Freistein looks at the significance of track-two dialogues in the ASEAN and ASEM processes. She remains ‘lukewarm’ on the actual potential of such dialogues to influence policy-making, but she does recognise their importance as ‘instruments of [interregional] confidence-building’ (p. 238). In Bersick’s chapter, he accounts for the growing participation of (global) civil society in official institutional processes through such forums like the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF). In a similar (cautious) vein to Freistein, while he contends that ‘a socialization process between governmental and non-governmental actors is underway’ (p. 258), he still questions the likelihood of deeper integration of civil society actors into formal Asia-Europe dialogue. Ultimately what both chapters underscore is how the ‘democratization’ of EU-Asian interregional relations remains an ongoing challenge.
Gunter Schubert’s Conclusion essentially summarizes the major points raised in the preceding chapters, attempting to bring together the volume’s various strands. However, apart from occasionally sounding like a book review, some questions are also left largely unanswered. Schubert, for instance, brings up the question of the ‘surplus-value’ of Asia-Europe interregionalism, though it is not very clear as to what exactly he means by this. It is also not entirely clear as to how one can actually go about ‘quantifying’ the EU-Asian relationship in such terms. Some readers might, moreover, come out feeling rather unconvinced with regard to the ‘heuristic power’ of the concept of interregionalism for explaining contemporary world politics, considering how most of the contributions necessarily admit the significant limitations of actual Asia-Europe relations.
But these quibbles aside, there is much to like about this book, making it a worthy addition to any library. Although it was published back in 2008 (which in IR terms would make it somewhat dated), its observations remain pertinent today. There is no doubt that Asian-European Relations fulfills its purpose of providing innovative perspectives on an issue-area that certainly deserves much more attention from the IR scholarly community.