What the Asia-Pacific Can Learn from the European Integration?

von Pan Zhenqiang
Online Info-Dienst Ausgabe 4/2004


If I (1) were to vote for what can be thought as the most remarkable achievement in the modern international relations, I would not hesitate to take the remarkable success of the post-war European integration as my best choice.

Thanks to the consistent efforts by the European countries over half a century, 25 sovereign nations as members of a Union today have agreed to abolish their borderlines; approved a common Constitution; and form a parliament, whose laws transcend the national laws of each of these countries in terms of their authority. All these are indeed unbelievable achievements ever made in a region where nations bore their grudges against each other in such an intense way that two world wars were started in this place in last century, bringing untold sufferings and damages to the mankind.

This success is particularly inspiring for the Asian-Pacific countries, as they, too, have been embarking on the course of closer cooperation among themselves, and indeed seemed even to enter an initial stage of regional integration itself for the last decade. European experience naturally has become a pet subject in the Asia-Pacific. On the other hand, however, this intense interest has seemed now being turned into a heated debate among Asian nations as to what one could exactly learn from the European integration, or more precisely, to what extent the European experience can apply to the Asian context. Opinion is divided on the issue. Against this backdrop, it is essential to encourage further study of not only the European experience as per se, but also the Asian specific background against which the Asian-Pacific cooperation and integration are taking place, and the European experience is 'Asianized'.

One can at least define the following aspects of the European integration that are particular pertinent and applicable to the Asian-Pacific effort:

First of all, the European countries set out their integration right from the economic dimension, thereby gradually developing increasing common interests among those participants. These common interests have become the firm bedrock of further integrating efforts.

After the end of the Second World War, the question of how the European security structure was to be shaped was hotly debated. The consensus reached was that Europe should never come back to the old regional order, based on the rivalry and balance of force among major powers. But it was a huge challenge as how to find a future in a dramatically different way that would assure sustained peace and stability. At this crucial juncture, a group of European statesmen should be given particular credit, who initiated the European integration with an extremely insightful strategic vision and great political courage. On May 9, 1950, the French Minister Robert Schuman put forward a bold plan, proposing "to subject the whole of the French-German coal and steel production to a common 'High Authority' in the shape of an institution open to other European countries that wish to join (2)." The plan was readily accepted by the then German chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In April of 1951, the two most important countries in Europe together with Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg formally agreed to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The event proved to be striking the nail right on its head as far as the issue of integration is concerned. It has become the basis for the rapid economic interconnections among European nations ever since. More importantly, it has also provided a more propitious political context in Europe in which the most essential resources for making war has been put under the control of a supranational institution. Political suspicion and mistrust against each other were thus vastly diminished. A large-scale war in the region became virtually impossible.

The experience that the European integration started from the closer economic ties is extremely valuable to the Asian case. It has been warmly embraced in the region. Even during the Cold War, the ASEAN was formed precisely with a view to first strengthening economic cooperation among the Southeast Asian countries and has so far achieved impressive success. Since the end of the Cold War, regional cooperation in the economic and trade field has become the top priority on the agenda of a number of multilateral forums in Asia. Agreements have been reached to set up free trade zones in East Asia between China, Japan and the ASEAN countries respectively. There are even efforts now being made to design further economic and financial integration within next decade. All these progresses bear remarkable resemblance of the course that European countries have traversed for further integration over last several decades.

Secondly, the European integration has firmly built itself on the reconciliation of nations who had traditionally regarded their bilateral relations as of zero sum nature. Indeed, the process of the European integration has been going hand in hand with the process of reconciliation among the European nations, France and Germany in particular. It is because of this success, Germany has seemed comfortably integrated into the European family. Today, with the rise of this strongest nation in Europe, which looks increasing ambitious to play a growing role in the international arena, no European countries harbor serious suspicion or fear of their security interests being fundamentally undermined.

The importance of providing a more propitious political context based on reconciliation for the regional integration should be particularly enlightening to Asian countries. A growing consensus seems now to emerge in the Asia-Pacific that, like European countries, Asian nations should take it as essential to remodel their state to state relations based on better understanding and political reconciliation among themselves, particularly in the China-Japan relations in order to facilitate the Asian integration. In this regard, Japan should especially learn from Germany in its selfless introspection of the responsibilities towards the Second World War and its sincere attitude to make up for the damages to other countries by its prewar behavior. On the other hand, other Asian nations should perhaps also learn how to turn over the unfortunate page of history and start a new chapter of reconciliation with greater magnanimity and forward-looking vision. Indeed, there is much for the Asia-Pacific to reflect on from the unique experience of the European reconciliation.

Thirdly, the European integration based on institutionalization and the rule by law ought to give exemplary inspiration to the Asian integration. Important decisions are made through meticulous preparations and thoughtful calculations in the process of European integration. When views are divided on vital issues like those involving handout of certain sovereignty, referendum is often used as the most democratic and effective way to solicit the political support of the majority. Thus, although the work often takes time and makes the integration a long and slow process, it is nevertheless steady and with least collateral damages. Even if conflicting views emerge, there are various mechanisms to efficiently address them. The Asian nations evidently should emulate all this matured democratic institutionalization of Europe, particularly when the Asian integration reaches a point in the future when sharing sovereignty becomes a central element.

Many more points can perhaps be cited, which are thought to be most directly relevant to the Asian nations with regard to the experience of the European integration. But it can also be argued that the Asian nations can perhaps also benefit from analyzing the part of European experience that does not seem particularly fitting the Asian specific conditions. In addition, Asian nations may even learn from problems or newly emerging challenges that Europe faces in its integration process. The following points may be in order in this regard:

First, the European integration is in fact an integration of Western civilization in a relatively homogeneous context. Members of the Union are more or less of uniform social system, values, and religious beliefs. Standards are laid out to make sure to exclude any nations in the region, which are not up to the stringent requirements. A debate has even been going as to whether Christianity should be written into the Constitution of the European Union. Although some European nations are vehemently opposed to the coupling of religion with politics, the motion itself indicates a strong penchant for upholding ideology in the European Union. The strength of this peculiarity of Europeans is that it easily generates cohesion and sustainability among member states. The weakness, however, is that the European Union becomes a very exclusive club, least tolerate of differences, and strong in ideology bias. This has created problems in accepting some minority European states with different ideology or religion, thus running a risk of bringing about unnecessary potential instability and conflict in the region in the future. The time-consuming debate on the application of access to the Union by Turkey, for example, is an illustrating example. Despite the assurance of its eventual entry into the European Union, it is generally believed that Turkey's membership may be farther away from reality, if not for ever be ruled out primarily because the country is not thought to be the like-minded one in the European community (3). The exclusiveness of the Union may also lead to the less sensitivity of the European members to the views and aspirations of other regions.

Asia-Pacific is much more pluralist and divergent compared to Europe. The region compasses nations with different social systems, historical backgrounds, cultural traditions, and levels of economic development. It is thus unimaginable for the Asia-Pacific to reach certain integration based on one type of model of civilization at the expense of others. No doubt, divergence raises difficulties for all the parties to reach agreement in their interactions. It has at the same time taught these countries to learn how to better accommodate these differences and live together in peace and cooperation. Asian nations must therefore guard against rigid uniformity and work towards its own integration, characterized by greater inclusiveness, better tolerance, and less ideological prejudices. The Asian integration can be more colorful and richer in its contents.

Secondly, European integration seems yet to better address the European relations with the two major powers-the United States and Russia today. Since the end of the Second World War, the European integration has all along been accompanied by the strengthening of the military-political alliance across the Atlantic in the form of NATO till recent times. Many Europeans were grateful to the United States as they thought it had kindly provided a security assurance for them to survive against the Soviet threat as well as to create a security framework for the European integration. But for the Europeans, there is no free lunch. Having provided a leadership role in the security arrangement in Europe, the Americans were successful in insuring the region in its firm control. Europe has little independence in its foreign and security. Perhaps precisely for this reason, European nations having been wishing all the time to speed up their integration in order to acquire greater independence from their big brother. For years, Europe has tried to speak to the Americans with one voice in the alliance. This objective has never been reached despite the progress of the European integration, and therefore there were always certain tensions in the Europe-US relations even during the Cold War. Tensions have been exacerbated since the end of the Cold War. The rift in the view on the war on Iraq between the two sides has brought home the acuteness of the increasing gap in this most important Western relationship. A fundamental transformation in the across Atlantic relations has now begun, but seems unclear in its orientation. The Europeans appear greatly ambivalent towards the Americans. Further, they are very much divided in their attitude towards the issue. Thus, the transformation process is bound to be a painful and difficult one, with some uncertain but significant consequences on the European integration in the future.

In a different light, Europe has another equally perplexing issue at hand, namely, one of how to treat its relations with another great power-Russia. Unlike European-US relations, European-Russia relations have always been marked by rivalry and confrontation, which can even be traced back in the past several centuries. The deep-rooted suspicion on the part of many European countries towards Russia has largely persisted despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and the rapid improvement in their interactions with Russia. It is ironical therefore that while European Union seems anxious to expand its sphere in the East to include all the former junior members of both the Soviet Union and the Soviet alliance, it has categorically rejected the inclusion of Russia into the European Union, leaving the former superpower completely isolated in Europe, licking its own wounds. The Russian indignantly asked where the borderline of Europe is in the East. And is not Russia a European country? Both questions are legitimate. But to give a satisfactory answer is both difficult and time assuming. Obviously, Europe is yet to define a more sophisticated approach towards Russia. Or the repercussions could also be very negative on peace and stability in the region.

The situation in the Asia-Pacific is vastly different from that in Europe. However, the Asia-Pacific has also been confronting the challenge of managing its relations with U.S.A. and Russia, the former superpower. The two regions face the same task in putting the proper role of the two major countries into their integration context respectively. Result of these efforts will have implications not only on their relations with the major powers, but also on the integration process in these two regions, thus affecting the world situation for better or worse. Asian nations can certainly learn experience and lessons from the evolution of the European policy. What is more important, is that Asian nations can even draw on the progress and setbacks from the European integration. They should strive to break away from the burden of the Cold War mentality, and re-conceptualize its relations with both the US and Russia in a new light based on mutual trust and benefit, equality and coo rdination, and encourage the constructive engagement with both of them in the Asian integration.

Last but not least, Europe seems yet to produce a more coherent and convincing doctrine to enhance its internal cohesion and solidarity as well as to augment its ambition to export its vision to the outside world with the rapid progress in integration. With 25 sovereign states under one roof, and a few more expected to join in in the future years, whether this can materialize is a big question, far more demanding than is imagined to be. In fact, today, the European Union is not in a good shape while fast on its way of expansion. According to one European analyst, it looks that "Europe's vibrant youth gives way to a gloomy maturity", when he pointed out:

"On the broader political canvas, governments are still vexed by the complex new geometry of a Union of 25. Fixed stars have been replaced by unfamiliar constellations, robbing political decision-making of its old predictability. The failure of France and Germany to impose their preferred candidate for Commission presidency was vivid confirmation of the change. The Franco-Merman axis is no longer a sufficient condition for what French diplomats call the construction of Europe. Yet no one is quite sure what might replace it. To complicate thins further, just as the political dynamics have changes, so has the terrain. For the past two decades or so, the EU has defined itself by its great projects: the single market, the euro, a common foreign policy and enlargement among them. Institutional upheaval has served the cause of a more coherent and wider Europe. The constitutional treaty marks the beginning of a different era, one in which the politics of the grand gesture gives way to the unglamorous grind of making the present structures work. In any event, the present gloom reflects an inescapable truth: the EU can only be what its member states want it to be. For now, energy and vision have fallen victim to a failure of political leadership (4)."

Central at the issue is the debate about the role and status of sovereignty. It is extremely interesting to observe that while in foreign affairs the European pundits often advocate that sovereignty has become an obsolete concept with nations being more interdependent, members of the European Union seem to have been more energetic internally to defend sovereignty in each of their own countries in the process of integration. Indeed, the more integration deepens, requiring the sharing sovereignty among member states, the more sensitive each of these members become to guard against the loss of it. After all, integration is no more than a union of sovereign states, not aiming at producing a super-national government. Thus, no matter how progress is achieved in the integration progress, sovereignty remains the last frontier of each of the member states to protect their own national interests. This does not look changing. The European doctrine about the role of sovereignty, therefore, does not seem in conformity of the reality, nor is it consistent when it is dealing with its own internal and external affairs.

The Asian nations have attached increasing importance to the issue of sovereignty, not only because most of these nations are probably more sensitive to it, owing to their humiliating history in the past centuries. It also due to a growing need to reach the consensus on the issue to facilitate the integration in the future. Debate is still going on. But the mainstream view seems to argue that sovereignty is by no means an outmoded concept. True, there will be more cases in which Asian nations are required to share their sovereignty to promote integration or address their common problems. But the act to hand out part of its sovereignty by a certain nation itself is the act of exercising its sovereignty because the decision has to be made by that country on the voluntary basis, with a meticulous calculation to trade for greater benefit to its people. Based on this understanding, the issue of sovereignty boils down to a basic argument that the process of handout sovereignty must be based on mutual respect, mutual benefit, and equality. It should be the only act of imposition on the weak by the strong. The European integration process has vindicated it. The Asian nations need to work hard to find out their own way to exercise the joint sovereignty when necessary, drawing on the European experience in the future.


(1) The article is based on the presentation at the Shanghai Workshop on "Global Governance-Regional Security Architecture and Multilateralism", Shanghai, June 21-23, 2004.

(2) Declaration presented by Mr. Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister, May 9, 1950

(3) For the debate on Turkey's accession to the European Union, see, for example, the recent articles "False Obstacles to Turkey's EU Bid" by Kirsty Hughes, Financial Times, July 5, 2004. In the article, Hughes highlighted the remaining but strong opposition in Europe to Turkey's membership. He pointed out "(i)n Europe itself, the debate is hotting up. Key political question, including Turkish human rights reforms and civilian control of the military, are under the spotlight. Opponents of Turkish membership raise doubts beyond the vital democratic criteria. They say Turkey is too big, too poor, not European by culture, geography or history, has dangerous borders, and will damage EU integration through lack of understanding and commitment". But of course, in Hughes's view, all these arguments are not justified. They should not constitute new obstacles to eventual Turkish membership.

(4) Philip Stephens, "Europe's Vibrant Youth Gives Way to a Gloomy Maturity", Financial Times, July 9, 2004.

The Author:

Major General Pan Zhenqiang (retired) is Professor and Deputy President of the Shanghai Institute for International Strategic Studies.

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