Author(s): Christopher M. Dent
Reviewed by James Parisot, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, Binghamton University (SUNY), USA.
The success of East Asian economic growth over the last several decades is reshaping global capitalism in complex and profound ways. In addition to reorienting world economic power from the Atlantic system to the Asia-Pacific region, it is also dramatically remaking social, political, and economic structures and processes within East Asia, creating new local and regional relations articulated through emerging globalized processes. Yet there is much uncertainty as to the degree to which East Asia has become a cohesive region, or to what extent the tendency towards forming a coherent region is stymied by massive economic uneven development and geopolitical tensions.
In East Asian Regionalism Dent attempts to address these issues in a well-organized and comprehensive manner. His book is aimed at students looking for a comprehensive introduction to contemporary issues in East Asian regionalism, contextualized historically. It may also be of interest to researchers in the field, as he discusses various international political economy (IPE) methodological approaches that have been used to explain East Asian regionalism and concludes by attempting to develop a new method drawing from what the author sees as the strengths and weaknesses of previous approaches.
The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which builds on the previous to try to map out a detailed overview of East Asian regionalism. In addition, included in the book are case studies, empirical examples of the points Dent makes in the general text. Both the case studies and end of each chapter also contain study questions, which may make the book useful for teaching undergraduate level classes.
Dent begins by outlining the scope of the book and defining its organizational concepts. He says that his “main objective is to consider to what extent East Asia is becoming, and will become an increasingly coherent (economic) region within the structure of the international or global system” (3). He goes on to differentiate regionalism, which he sees as the top down, policy making side of regions, from regionalization, processes of region making through the private sector and civil society.
He also discusses various ways of thinking about regions, differentiating what he calls the classic regional and new regional approaches. The new regionalism approach, which Dent endorses, is more multi-disciplinary than the classic approach, drawing from various academic fields to attempt to provide a more comprehensive analysis of regionalism that can account for a wide variety of complex relations between states and non-state actors.
In addition, Dent lays out four main IPE methods which becomes a running theme in the book. He contrasts neo-realism, neo-liberalism (institutionalism), social constructivism, and Marxism (structuralism). Although he glosses over the complex debates internal to each approach, his somewhat over-simplified inclusion of each is useful in that it allows him to emphasize interactions between economics, politics, and ideas in order to attempt to develop a comprehensive framework for studying regionalism.
The next six chapters, the majority of the book, discuss in detail the dynamics and elements of East Asian regionalism outlining both the major forces pushing regional integration and various obstacles to deepening this. First, he provides a discussion on international production networks (IPNs). Here he shows the uniqueness of East Asia’s economic development lies in the depth to which production chains stretch across borders, bringing the region together as a whole. He also details the heterogeneous nature of this regionalization by creating various models of how different production networks functionally operate in order to demonstrate the complexity of IPNs. In addition, he has created particularly useful diagrams which demonstrate the geography of the East Asian economy, showing that economic activity tends to be centered around various economic nodes and ‘world cities’. Together, what has essentially been built is a ‘pan-regional development corridor’ that runs through East Asia’s IPN nodes, but excludes some peripheral areas from the economic dynamism of the corridor.
The next chapters discuss the various political arrangements, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN Plus Three (APT), and Asian-Pacific Cooperation forum (APEC) that have been solidifying East Asian regionalism, also highlighting tensions within these organizations. These chapters also emphasize how these agreements are facilitating various free trade agreements (FTAs) within the region, also outlining the political tensions that stem from economic unevenness and social diversity within the region.
In his discussion of ASEAN, Dent notes that through the 1980s it was primarily concerned with security. Since the end of the Cold War it transformed into an organization increasingly emphasizing liberalizing trade within Southeast Asia, and beyond. His discussion on ASEAN also emphasizes the difficulties of liberalizing trade in a region that, historically, is famous for its ‘developmental states’. He highlights this in his case study on Southeast Asia’s automobile sector, noting that Malaysia has used import substitution strategies to build up its national car industry, particularly the companies Proton and Perodua. Thus Malaysia has been reluctant to simply liberalize its trade, but has participated in ASEAN trade liberalization programs, demonstrating the differences between East Asian regionalism and liberalization in other regions, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Dent also discusses APEC in detail, highlighting the difficulties of building policy links in a broader trans-regional space. For example, he notes that the Bogor goals have called for trade and investment liberalization across the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, but many tensions have made this goal seem quite unlikely. In part, this is due to the difficulty of reconciling such a diversity of economic interests, diluting the effectiveness of APEC. For example, APEC authority is based around the ‘three no’s’; no legally binding authority, no negotiating right, and no authority beyond the World Trade Organization (WTO). Thus while APEC does represent the most important Asia-Pacific trans-regional organization, and has provided more cohesion to the trans-region, the scope of its power is diluted by the heterogeneous interests it serves, limiting its effectiveness.
The author also goes into detail about APT, showing its importance as possibly leading to an overall East Asian organization as highlighted in the East Asia Summit (EAS) framework. APT has been useful, for example, for developing a more cohesive regional financial system in the wake of the 1997/98 East Asian financial crisis. Developments such as the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) which allows for currency swaps in times of crisis, the Asian Bond Markets Initiative (ABMI), which encourages the development of a regional bond market to fund investment in infrastructure, etc., and the proposed Asian Currency Unit (ACU), which would create a common East Asian currency, still a long way off, have been facilitated by APT and have worked towards building a more cohesive East Asian financial regionalism.
Dent also details the various FTAs in East Asia and their links outside the region, demonstrating that FTAs tend to be bilateral rather than regional. On one hand, this suggests that it could, in the long run, lead to broader regional FTAs, but various geopolitical tensions expressed in these arrangements, such as diverging FTA policy standards between Japan and China, also suggest that bilateral FTAs could be an obstacle to finding common ground between competitive political interests. The book also includes a chapter on transnational issues in the region, discussing the ‘haze’ pollution problem, issues of labor migration, and energy security. Like free trade agreements, these issues highlight both the ways that regional issues have formed, facilitating cooperation between states while simultaneously creating frictions between them that could prevent regionalism from solidifying more deeply.
The final chapter lays out a new approach to regionalism Dent calls the ‘coherence’ approach. This method attempts to draw from the strengths of various IPE approaches to regionalism, linking together the associative (relational), integrational (technical), and organization (systemic) connections of regionalism in a multi-disciplinary, comprehensive manner. Scholars and students may find this useful for their own research projects. In addition, he provides helpful diagrams and discussion on the various dimensions of geo-spatial regionalism, from the sub-regional to the global, which may help scholars and students think about the ways that the local, regional, and global co-determine each other.
That being said, East Asian Regionalism does have some shortcomings. Although the author attempts to build a comprehensive perspective on its issue, its focus on IPNs and policy organizations leaves the reader with a top down analysis of East Asian regionalism. Other than a short section on labor migration, for example, Dent leaves out a discussion of some particularly crucial factors in the region such as labor. The text is generally uncritical of, or ignores many of the various social problems, such as labor exploitation and rising social inequality in the region, besides a few mentions of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ relations, drawn somewhat haphazardly from world-systems analysis. In other words, by academic standards it is not a critical text. Thus for teaching purposes, I would recommend supplementing it with another text that discusses East Asian regionalism more critically.
Overall though, East Asian Regionalism is a generally clear, well written text, dense with abbreviations but well organized, which is recommended for students or scholars looking for an introduction to the subject. The author demonstrates a good knowledge of the literature on the subject. Yet, because of the contemporary nature of its subject matter, it would be advised that the author updates the book regularly to keep it up to date.