China and East Asian Regionalism: Economic and Security Cooperation and Institution Building

Author(s): Suisheng ZhaoChina and East Asian regionalism

ISBN:          978-0-415-61814-4

Publisher: Routledge

Year:          2012

Price:         $75,01

Reviewed by Emilian Kavalski, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Western Sydney (Australia).

Regionalism – both in its old and new variants – is starting to be perceived as a complex and multidimensional phenomenon. After World War II, the inevitability of absorbing states and regions into the American model of neoliberal capitalism seemed triumphantly vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War, however, profoundly unsettles such perceptions. Regionalism, in particular, appeared to encourage and sustain regional variations (if not outright contestations) of the dominant model. More importantly—regionalism has provided a framework for extending alternative models of order. This need not necessarily be non-Western. For instance, the European Union (EU) has probably provided the most conspicuous alternative to the American template. The study of regionalism, therefore, draws attention to the increased prominence of the regional arrangements – regardless of whether they are formal or informal in character.

The comprehensive and very timely volume edited by Suisheng Zhao grapples with the complex reality of new regionalisms in East Asia. In particular, the assessment draws attention to the fact that “China has played an increasingly active role in a growing number of regional institutions in which a dizzying array of leadership meetings, agreements, and cultural exchanges with East Asian countries have taken place” (p. 5). Usually, the conversation on comparative regionalisms are hijacked by the so-called exception of the EU, just as discussions off Asian regionalisms rarely step outside the lodestone of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In this respect, the engagement with different regionalisms remains befuddled because of the expectation of a legible, institutionalized behavior, not shared practices. In contrast to such institution-seeking analyses, this volume asserts that the proliferation of different regionalisms reflects the globalizing contestation of the very idea of what the pattern of international politics should look like and how it should be practiced.

In this setting the contributors to the collection edited by Zhao examine whether there is an emerging pattern in global politics which is distinguished by the matrix of China’s regionalization. The query then is whether China’s nascent practices of regionalization suggest a foreign policy outreach, whereby Beijing’s agency initiates idiosyncratic discourses and practices through which global neighborhoods begin to perceive themselves as distinct regional actors. In this respect, this volume maps the shifting perspectives on China’s international agency. Such an investigation disrupts the perception of a singular and uniform (new) regionalism through a parallel assessment of the political, economic, and institutional aspects of China’s contribution to and impact on East Asia’s regional formations.

In order to ensure the cogency of its explanation, the volume dissects the investigation Beijing’s bearing on East Asian regionalism into three parts. The first one details China’s strategic considerations of East Asian regionalism. The four chapters included in this part of the volume offer insightful analyses of (i) the motivations and calculations of China’s engagement with East Asian regionalism; (ii) the post-Cold War evolution of China’s strategic thought on regionalism in Northeast Asia; (iii) the complex roles played by China in Asian regional cooperation; and (iv) the impact of China’s rise on the vision of an East Asian Community. These accounts provide rarely prescient and timely accounts of China’s strategic thought.

The second part of the volume depicts China’s involvement in regional economic and trade cooperation. The contributions to this part of the volume discuss a diverse set of issues ranging from the domestic constraints on Beijing’s more active contribution to economic cooperation in East Asia to China’s deliberation between bilateral and multilateral trade liberalization. As one would expect in this context, this section includes a detailed analyses of ASEAN–China trade flows as well as the bearing of Beijing’s growing economic clout on closer economic integration in Asia. The framework of part two of the volume, therefore, provides a consistent and much-needed account of Chinese perceptions of and participation in regional East Asian economic initiatives.

The third part of the volume zooms in on China’s involvement regional security and energy cooperation. This section again brings together four contributors. The chapters address (i) the prospect for an “Asian space cooperation” (p. 145) between the United States and China, (ii) the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as the key regional organization in Central Asia; (iii) the trends in China’s contribution to maritime cooperation in East Asia; and (iv) the energy relations between Washington and Beijing in the Asia Pacific. In this respect, the third part of the volume makes available perceptive assessments of China’s explanation and understanding of regional security cooperation.

The editor’s knack to bring together such a wide range of perspectives, positions, and ideas, and at the same time to reflect critically on their implications makes the volume’s investigative journey extremely worthwhile. It has to be acknowledged therefore, that the contributions to the three parts of the volume edited by Zhao offer contextual responses to this inquiry with vivid illustrations from Beijing’s participation in diverse regional initiatives. Each chapter provides detailed reading of China’s engagement in the dynamics of East Asian regionalism. Some of the contributors suggest that the active involvement in regional forums appears to have offered China a convincing platform for allaying the fears of other actors about its proactive international behavior. In other words, such contribution to East Asian regionalism can be treated both as a shorthand for and a confirmation of Beijing’s insistence on its peaceful rise to international prominence. In a similar vein, other contributors have tended to interpret China’s participation in regional initiatives as a foreign policy approach, which emerges out of idiosyncratic push-and-pull factors that shape Beijing’s attempt to position itself as a responsible and reliable international actor.

Yet, as Zhao himself stresses, one should not forget that “the bottom line” for Beijing’s participation in such regional multilateral institutions is “China’s ability to maximize its national interest, including domestic modernization, security and relative power, and its position to maintain its autonomy within these organizations have set the limits for China’s participation in East Asian regional institutions” (p. 15). In this respect, the volume edited by Zhao is ideal both as supplementary texts to advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. The volume provides a competent overview of the considerations currently animating the conversation on China’s growing international prominence. The volume will therefore be relevant to anyone interested in Asian regionalism and Asian international relations.

Suggested citation: 

Emilian Kavalski (2014). Review of “China and East Asian Regionalism: Economic and Security Cooperation and Institution Building”, by Suisheng Zhao, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.26, Internet file: