An Interview with Evan Feigenbaum
Image Credit: US Navy

An Interview with Evan Feigenbaum


One of the key issues raised in a recent report you co-authored from the Council on Foreign Relations on Asia is how best Asia can develop a multilateral framework to channel its energies. Earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hosted a meeting broaching just this subject and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has talked of an East Asia Community. There’s been talk many times over the years of closer integration in Asia. Do you think the region is this time ready for closer integration?

I think we need to recognize that there’s a long history of not just trying to integrate the region, but also trying to find multilateral solutions to specific problems. Going back especially to the last financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, I think that in addition to a long effort by a number of Asian nations to try and find more of a regional identity, Asians have been groping in many ways since that crisis for their own solutions to a number of functional challenges, particularly economic and financial.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that experience at the time suggested that the United States was, in some ways, aloof from the problems of the region. Back in ’97 and ’98, the United States refused to bail out Thailand, just three years after it had bailed out Mexico in 1994. That had a very powerful effect, especially in Southeast Asia, on opinions of the United States. But it also produced a kind of impulse toward institution building, and many of the regional institutions we see today. And so there has been a tension in the foreign policies of a lot of countries in the region-including even Japan for example-between their identities as Asian countries and sometimes their search for Asia-only solutions to their problems, and the fact that they’re an integral part of a strategic and economic community that includes the United States and stretches across the Pacific.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Now, the problem is that, functionally speaking, many of the institutions that have been created have not been particularly effective at dealing with functional problems. I think that’s changing in the economic and financial areas, though less so in the political and security areas. So I think what’s changed over time has been the degree to which Asians are looking for their own solutions.

You mention that suspicion on the part of Asian nations toward the US has in large part been down to how the US handled the financial crisis in 1997. Have there been any other major factors?

It’s really stemmed from three things I think. For many decades there has been a debate in Asia about how to create some kind of unity out of the region’s diversity. And as we say in the report, Asia is not Europe. There’s a history of institution building in Europe, and Europeans have also been linked for a long time by a sense of the inter-relationship of the parts of the region-there’s a dominant religion in Europe, there’s a common sense of political and other experiences. That’s not been the case in Asia.

The second, as you and I both say, is the [1997-98] financial crisis, which lent new impetus to these things.

And the third is just the growing financial and economic integration of Asia itself. That’s really accelerated since 1997 and ’98-the region just trades more with each other. There’s more happening economically in the region. And China plays a very big role in the production and supply chains that link Asian economies together. So this has all come together to create this ferment for new regional institutions and ways of doing things.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief