Time to Make Asian Regionalism a Reality

Crisis creates opportunity. And as happened following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the global crisis today will accelerate thought and action on the evolution of Asian regionalism in the 21st century.

Eighty-five years ago, the founder of the first popular movement for a united Europe, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, said that "all great historical ideas started as a utopian dream and ended with reality." Today, as a single, integrated market with shared policies and a common currency, Europe has achieved that dream.

Can Asia, too, become truly integrated while remaining globally connected? I believe it can. I envision an Asia where countries are seamlessly connected by land, sea, and air; where there are no barriers to trade; where goods and services move freely across borders; where capital can be transferred unimpeded; an Asia where people are free to settle where they can best use their skills. I envision an Asia that tackles challenges together, in a collegial manner, with common purpose. An Asia free from poverty, where countries forge strong partnerships for shared prosperity, and where political differences are assuaged by the common ideal of bettering the lives of our citizens.

Bringing such a vision to fruition is critical to the future of our children or grandchildren. It may not happen in our lifetime. But the longer it takes, the sooner we must start.

Some say that Asia's diversity-political, economic, historical and cultural-is an impediment that precludes integration. They argue that a few concrete achievements are all we can feasibly hope for. I call that the "minimalist" approach, utilizing intergovernmental cooperation rather than supranational institutions.

Others embrace a far broader, more ambitious blueprint for creating and designing regional institutions that incorporate regional cooperation. I call this the "bolder" approach. Here we delve into the sensitive issues of sovereignty; what Asia's leaders are willing to hand over to a supranational regional institution for the sake of Asia's regional public good. Does a fully integrated Asia start with the multilateralization of the Chiang Mai Initiative, an East Asian reserve pool? Or does it rise from a direct political commitment based on issues related to security? Or do we move forward with initiatives to build an integrated Asian capital market that could efficiently channel Asian savings into Asian investments? Will we one day have an Asian Economic Community? And what would it take to build the required institutions?

I lean toward the bolder approach. As we work out the problems associated with the current global crisis and the future challenges, I believe we will find that our national interests are in fact better served through cooperation and integration. At the same time, we will see sub-regional cooperation growing into institutions, then melding together and finally encompassing the entire Asia-Pacific region, as partnerships are forged across the various sub-regions.

Asia has already come a long way. The time has now come for its leaders to articulate a unique path of Asian regionalism and begin planning for the supranational institutions that can effectively govern the process of increased interdependence. Our recent history has shown that increased cooperation among Asian nations can greatly expand the benefits of growth, and bring more and more Asian people into a widening circle of opportunity. We have proven that what we desire for our people, we can achieve. Taking the next step toward true integration will lay a foundation for Asia's continued economic and social development.

Based on where we've come from and where we are today, it is essential we keep in mind what has happened over the past 40 years when discussing what our region will look like another 40 years down the road. Dynamic change is in the air. And a more integrated Asia is at its heart.