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Resources for Mapping China’s Participation and Contribution in Asian Regional Cooperation

Part II

Mapping Academic Scholarship on Regionalism

by Aya Adachi

For studying China’s behavioural pattern in regionalism it is useful to draw lessons from general work on comparative regionalism as well as scholarship on Asian specific regionalism. It not only allows us to place China’s regional politics into the wider academic debate but also to make statements with regards to distinct features of Chinese regionalism.

Comparative regionalism deals with issues such as, defining regions, regionalism, regionalisation and regional integration. As regions and their level of regionness (Hettne & Söderbaum 2000) are diverse, definition have been rather loose in order to accommodate flexibility when defining regions in a comparative context. While early scholarship has been narrowly centered around the EU and the European experience, scholars have since put efforts in trying to amend the bias. The scholars around the so-called new regionalism scholarship and other more recent work have re-conceptualised ontological perspectives and established a more or less consensus view on the following (Acharya 2012):

  1. Regionalism is no longer centred around the state but also includes interactions among non-state between states and within a given area.
  2. Regionalism in no longer defined in terms of formal intergovernmental organisations with a charter and its own bureaucracy
  3. Regionalization is understood different from regionalism: the former being market-driven and less political – alas not entirely apolitical.
  4. Regions are not a geographic given, but are socially constructed, made and remade through interactions.

Comparative regionalism as a discipline to actually compare one region to another suffers from difficulties of obtaining comparable data sets or establishing a research method that is applicable in all regions. Comparative regionalism has been criticized for thus far only having delivered regionally specific empirical generalizations, in which hypothesis were verified but relationship to other variables were not specified. Nevertheless, it is important to refer to the comparative regionalism scholarship to establish the link between area-specific or region-specific scholarship and academic work across all regions and to avoiding parochialism within your own academic discipline (e.g. China Studies, or East Asian Area Studies).

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East Asian Regionalism
has proliferated since the 1990s. What has emerged is a complex structure of various different competing and overlapping initiatives and constellations (ASEAN, ASEAN + 3/+6, ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia Pacific Forum, East Asian Summit, Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, amongst others). East Asian Regionalism has been studied by numerous scholars. Much work has been dedicated to exploring external aspect of effects of globalization on regionalism (Beeson 2014/2007; Dent 2016/2008) or on Sino-Japanese rivalry and its impact on regional economic order (Park 2013; Rathus 2011; Solis, Stallings & Katada 2009). However, scholarship on East Asian Regionalism has been rather state-centered and has shied away from taking on the research agenda of new regionalism by avoiding to include non-state actors and the analytical level of domestic politics. This can be attributed to the fact that many scholars are critical of the differentiability of state and non-state in East Asia (Fawn 2009) and no attempts have been made to dissolve the binary distinction between state and non-state to include other analytical levels.


With regards to how China
positions itself regionally, it is uncertain whether China has a clear singular stance or strategy towards regionalism. With the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being a global project, it could be argued that China does not have a strategy towards regionalism, but rather relies on various regional frameworks as a means to an end. Nevertheless, China is engaging in multiple regional cooperation projects in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and in the Asia Pacific.