The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met last week in Thailand to continue work on Asian economic integration. They continued lowering tariffs and expanding investment into each other's countries. Meanwhile, China and Japan jockeyed for position as the leading power in Asia.
There are several proposals for a future East Asian free-trade zone — the Japanese version is called the East Asian Community — but all are vague, and leaders say they are a long way from reality.
The proposals are often compared to a European Union-style single market, but analysts say a pan-Asian economic bloc would be unlikely to have open borders, free movement of labor and common security policies.
China did not publicly offer its vision of an East Asian community, but a statement issued after a meeting of what is known as Asean plus three — the leaders of Asean, China, Japan and South Korea — said those 13 countries would form the “main vehicle toward the long-term goal of building an East Asian Community.” That would seem to exclude a role for the United States.
Japan still wants the U.S. to be involved. (Unlike Emmanuel ASEAN isn't my area of expertise, but I have a feeling that China wins this battle for regional influence. That doesn't mean that the U.S./Japan go away completely -- we're too big to ignore -- but it does mean a greater role for Beijing in maintenance of the Asian economy. In my view, this isn't necessarily a bad thing for the U.S.)
I'm not surprised that ASEAN will stay away from labor and security arrangements. These policies have been controversial in Europe, which is much richer, less competitive, and more ideologically similar than SE Asia. Most of these countries still have tons of unemployment, so it would be politically impossible to have open labor markets. And could you imagine Japan and China agreeing on a security arrangement? China and S. Korea? Burma and Singapore? Me either.
So it's unlikely that we'll see E.U.-style integration in Asia any time soon. But that doesn't mean that NAFTA-style trade and investment arrangements wouldn't be beneficial.