The ASEAN plus three holds the key to globalization’s future
Richard Javad Heydarian

Editor's note: Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical and economic affairs, formerly political science assistant professor, at De La Salle University and Ateneo De Manila University, the Philippines. He is the author of “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery”, among others. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The 20th ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Foreign Ministers' Meeting is held during July 29 to August 3 in Bangkok, Thailand. And the stakes are high, as East Asian countries seek to reverse the tide of protectionism and unilateralism unleashed by the Trump administration. Finalization of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is central to ATP’s global leadership on trade issues.

Exactly two decades ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Plus Three (APT) was institutionalized into an anchor of regional integration in East Asia. It marked one of the most consequential attempts at pan-regional integration outside the European Union (EU).

With a combined nominal GDP of 20 trillion U.S. dollars, and encompassing more than two billion people, the APT is now the world’s biggest regional grouping. Amid the festering trade wars, and America’s disruptive unilateralism and trade protectionism, the APT may very well hold the key to reviving economic globalization as well as preserving peaceful interdependence in East Asia and beyond.

The APT, however, has remained a largely informal, flexible, ad-hoc and issue-specific mechanism, rather than a robust institutional entity with a coherent role in shaping the international system.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha addresses the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, July 31, 2019. /VCG Photo

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha addresses the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, July 31, 2019. /VCG Photo

The informality allows ASEAN to maintain some semblance of ‘centrality’ as well as facilitate geopolitical faultlines in Northeast Asia, especially the historical rivalries and schisms among China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Now, however, the grouping has to step up to the challenge or risk losing a historic opportunity to protect regional stability and economic globalization.

The overarching goal is an “Asia for Asians” economic order, which is in tune with regional developmental needs and strategic priorities. These plans didn’t come to full fruition, mainly because of the rapid recovery of most Asian economies, Japan’s strategic subservience to America, and a burgeoning Sino-American rapprochement following China’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

Today, the region is once again facing the threat of American unilateralism, albeit of a diametrically opposite kind. While the Clinton administration espoused aggressive liberalization, much at the expense of stability in financial markets, the Trump administration is instead embracing protectionism, disrupting regional trade patterns and global economic integration.

Given the heft of APT nations in global trade, with East Asia emerging as the world’s largest consumer market as well as industrial hub in the 21st century, they play a major role in ensuring momentum in global trade and investment flows, both through joint diplomatic efforts as well as specific policy initiatives.

In response to new threats of American protectionism, last year, during the APT Foreign Ministers' meeting in Singapore, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a series of measures in this regard, among which under discussion one stands out: Diplomatic coordination among APT members must grow in order to finalize the RCEP, a free trade regime which excludes the U.S. but includes all major Asia-Pacific economies, at the soonest.

Unlike the TPP and its successor, the RCEP doesn’t impose regulatory regimes on member states, nor does it disempower state institutions to the benefit of Western multinational companies. There are no policies, which require privatization of state assets, aggressive liberalization of strategic sectors, as well as granting global corporations undue legal immunity from prosecution by state parties.

Instead, the RCEP is an ambitious trade-facilitation mechanism, which seeks to streamline tariff rates as well as reduce logistical barriers to economic exchange among major regional economies. By reducing trade barriers among major regional economies, it would unleash a new wave of trade and investment flows across the Asia-Pacific, with APT economies at the very center of this deepened network of economic interface.

Thus, the finalization of the RCEP, potentially the largest pan-regional free trade regime, is crucial to rescuing the beleaguered globalization project, especially amidst the stubborn deadlock in the Doha round negotiations in the World Trade Organization. Were the RCEP to be finalized, it will likely serve as a catalyst for similar mega-free trade regimes across the world, as other nations seek see to avoid exclusion from new trading blocs amid the network effect, with East Asia at its very center.

Moreover, the APT countries, during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting Plus sidelines’ in coming days, should collectively raise their dismay with the Trump administration’s protectionist policies, including imposition of unilateral tariffs on their exports and critical steel/aluminum industries, during their meetings with the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In particular, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, along with his APT counterparts, can collectively seek to convince their American counterpart that the ongoing Sino-American trade war, which can have adverse impact on the whole region if unrestrained, should be resolved in a mutually-acceptable way lest there is major disruption to East Asian production networks.

Thus, the APT should release a joint statement, which emphasizes the need for finalization of the RCEP, swift and just resolution of the Sino-American trade war, and the continued centrality of economic globalization to regional peace and prosperity. At some point, the APT can even discuss retaliatory measures, including their own unilateral tariffs on American products, if necessary.

As for policy initiatives, there was a proposal during the last APT meeting to explore the possibility of using an East Asian common trading currency to facilitate trade in the region, especially in light of booming investment and trade flows in East Asia. But as the EU experience shows, common currency per se is not only far-fetched, but also highly risky, necessitating robust fiscal coordination (i.e., strict enforcement of fiscal deficit limits) in addition to a centralized monetary body, which will implement currency synchronization among highly diverse member states.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses the launching ceremony for an ASEAN-China Young Leaders Scholarship in Bangkok, Thailand, July 31, 2019. /Reuters Photo

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses the launching ceremony for an ASEAN-China Young Leaders Scholarship in Bangkok, Thailand, July 31, 2019. /Reuters Photo

Moreover, China is yet to fully liberalize its financial markets, which would complicate any attempt at full monetary integration, not to mention the immense developmental gap among APT members makes common currency creation close to impossible.

But what’s more likely, and even desirable, is expansion of currency swap arrangements as well as expanded usage of regional currencies, particularly the Chinese Yuan, in intra-regional trade and transactions.

This reduces transactions costs, properly reflects China’s centrality in regional production networks, and curbs dependence on as well as the hegemony of U.S. dollar, which has encouraged American profligacy and financial unilateralism, including imposition of secondary sanctions.

The goal, down the road, should be to create an increasingly autonomous, self-reliant East Asian monetary system, which facilitates economic exchange as well as safeguards the developmental sovereignty of regional economies. The APT can play a central role in this regard. As trade among East Asian economies expands, overall global trade is bound to improve, while encouraging other economic blocs, including the EU, to expand their economic exchange with East Asia.

Perhaps the silver lining in Trump’s unilateral protectionism is pushing Asian countries closer together, just as the APT mechanism initially envisioned.

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