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Opinion: ASEAN engagement key to a revitalised Asia-Pacific

Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel was part of a delegation led by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) that travelled to Tokyo in May for roundtable discussions with think-tanks and academics. He comments on the New Zealand-Japan partnership, the TPP and Asia-Pacific regionalism.

Mary English, New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Akie Abe

Japan and New Zealand have recently drawn closer together in the effort to salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after US President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of American participation. New Zealand’s timely move to follow Japan as the second country to ratify the TPP created common ground for Bill English to build on during his first visit to Tokyo as Prime Minister in May 2017.

Washington’s absence means the TPP can no longer be depicted as part of a new "Great Game" for power and influence between the United States and China. Instead, countries like New Zealand and Japan can help develop this "high quality" trade agreement as a model for deeper integration between diverse economies without exacerbating geopolitical rivalries. It presents an opportunity to revive momentum in Asia-Pacific regionalism, while leaving it open for the US (as well as China and others) to join in due course.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and US president Donald Trump

As with preservation of the TPP in this new context, the Prime Minister’s trip opened prospects of closer Japan-New Zealand partnership in addressing other regional challenges.

Asia-Pacific regionalism has always been fraught and is currently somewhat adrift in the face of formidable challenges posed by geopolitics, nationalism and populism. The Trump administration’s transactional approaches to international affairs have added the risk of uncertainty amid mounting apprehensions in some countries about a more assertive China. Worryingly, both great powers are favouring bilateralism over inclusive regionalism.

Rising threats to Asia-Pacific regionalism were a focal point of recent dialogues between New Zealand and Japanese think tanks and officials in Tokyo preceding English's visit. The discussions highlighted Japan and New Zealand’s strong shared interests in working together to navigate these changing dynamics.

By default, much of the Asia-Pacific’s "regional architecture" has been built around so-called ASEAN centrality. The term refers to the alphabet soup of ASEAN-related acronyms (EAS, ARF, ADMM+ and the like) around which regional security and economic dialogues have come to revolve. Like ASEAN itself, these mechanisms are imperfect but they help underpin confidence-building and regional stability.

Leaders from ASEAN member nations

Currently, both ASEAN and its centrality are under strain. In its 50th anniversary year, ASEAN faces something of a mid-life crisis. The organisation is bedevilled by internal challenges of popular legitimacy, fractious divisions about China and the US and stalled progress on meaningful implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community. Progress has been even slower on the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — sometimes portrayed as a China-heavy competitor to the TPP.

Neither a weak ASEAN nor fraying regional architecture is good for countries like New Zealand and Japan. If regionalism is to be revitalised, it is critical to support both ASEAN and its centrality. New Zealand and Japan are among those most committed to these causes and should explore how to do more together.

For example, there is scope for more coordination of both countries’ capacity-building programmes for ASEAN states. More focused Japan-New Zealand collaboration should occur to seek tangible outcomes from the panoply of ASEAN-related talking shops.

New Zealand’s three new Government-funded Centres for Asia-Pacific Excellence for North Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America (CAPES) offer another opportunity for innovation in anchoring approaches to different parts of the Asia-Pacific within wider regional frameworks.

At a testing time in regional affairs, countries with similar values and interests must work together for a more integrated, rules-based order to ensure the Asia-Pacific region’s extraordinary dynamism of the past few decades is not undermined by geopolitical competition, bilateralism and nationalism. Japan and New Zealand have already proven willing to play leading roles in championing the TPP, alongside regional partners. There is much to gain by doing so in a range of areas to restore momentum to Asia-Pacific regionalism.

Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel is a Professorial Fellow at the Centre of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). He is a Senior International Adviser for VUW, having recently retired as Pro Vice-Chancellor (International Engagement) after 10 years overseeing the University’s internationalisation strategies and activities. He has authored/edited over 40 books and articles. He is National Vice-President of the NZIIA.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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2 June 2017