Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hosted an interesting meeting over the weekend aimed at fleshing out his vision of a more integrated Asia community. Speaking at the gathering of regional media, think tank and government officials, Rudd said countries in the region needed to ‘plan with each other, rather than against each other.’
Of course he’s right. But that doesn’t mean it’s plausible any time soon. It’s hard to see such a diverse region in terms of culture, economics and military prowess being able to even agree something as simple as who should be involved — should the US have a role? Should China be included? India? And should it be an economic club or discuss defence issues as well?
I chatted at the weekend with Guy de Jonquières, a senior fellow at Chatham House and former chief Asia columnist for the Financial Times, about the issue, and he was sceptical over the drive for closer economic integration, making this point:
‘All that we know about regional trade agreements is that the more diverse the levels of economic development, the harder it is to do. And in Asia you find a wider spread than you do in almost any other region in the world. In Asia you’ve got some of the very, very poorest countries, while in Japan you’ve got one of the richest. So it’s extraordinarily difficult to herd all these cats. And nor, indeed, should you probably try. Trying to devise a system for Laos that would also work for Hong Kong would be kind of crazy.’
This may be Asia’s century. But talk of the region leading the world through a regional bloc is clearly extremely premature.