Thursday, December 22, 2011

Regionalism trumps globalisation as preferred paradigm

Just ask anyone about globalisation and they’ll tell you all about the “Global Village”. They will also tell you about the advances in technology which has revolutionised the way we travel, communicate and do business. But in reality, the rise of regionalism has been an unexpected part of the globalisation process. This process has been facilitated by governments and transnational organisations such as European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), just to name a few.

As a basic introduction, both these institutions developed out of unique set of circumstances and reasons for integrating at a regional level.

For example, the EU was created during the post-war period and after experiencing the dictorships of Hitler and Mussolini.  After experiencing these two dictators, Italy and Germany wanted to make sure that they would never be in the same situation. As a result, the idea was to give up some of their national sovereignty to another level of governance in order to (hopefully) prevent an individual gaining more power from happening again.   

It is interesting to note that Britain was against joining such a supranational body, arguing that it was their Westminster style of Liberal Democracy, as well as belonging to a ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ already, had prevented a dictator ever holding such complete power.

Although the European continent is far from homogeneous, much of it had already had a ‘common market’ of sorts, such as the Roman Empire and Judaeo-Christian values (until recently); it is also geographically more compact than Southeast Asia.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations evolved from different circumstances. The wider region of Asia is extremely diverse in its culture, history and languages, but colonisation (British and Dutch) and its role in the early trade routes with Europe does provide a uniting history. Mark Beeson raises an interesting point when he states that Southeast Asia only became a geopolitical entity (as opposed to being part of the “Far-East”) after Britain’s conflict with Japan in World War II (2009). While security remains a central part of ASEAN, trade liberalisation of member states and commerce among each other as well as with the rest of the world has become of great importance for them.    

Returning to the question of what factors contribute to regionalism’s continued existence, it is important to remember that despite regionalism being on the rise, it seems that global integration is still considered to be the ultimate goal; despite the benefits that regionalism has to offer. 

As McCormick argues ‘regional integration is very much a global affair, and there are similar experiments under way on every continent. Levels of progress have been mixed, regional grouping do not always have the same levels of ambition and their integrative potential varies’ (1999, P.12). The fact that there are efforts to create regional organizations shows that Governments (and citizens) still seek regionalism rather than pure globalisation.

For example, some national governments (especially small and/or new industrialising economies, such as Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand) are struggling to compete with larger and more industrial countries. Therefore coming together with others in the region provides opportunities to trade more locally at a regional level. 

Developing Countries, including many members of ASEAN, find it difficult to reconcile the trade liberalization strategies and their need to develop and establish their own economies.  As Brigid Gavin argues, ‘Developing countries are increasingly concerned about how to achieve coherence between development and multilateralism…..But their regionalism is part of a multilevel strategy which needs to be synchronized with their national development plans as well as their efforts to achieve development-friendly trade rules in the World Trade Organisation’ (2007, p. 59).

On the one hand national governments want to abide by World Trade Organisation rules to decrease trade barriers and to adhere to labour, intellectual property and environmental rules but on the other hand, these Governments are aware that they need to grow and strengthen their own national industries.

Griffith and O’Callaghan describe it well when they say ‘Regional cooperation may be promoted as a counterweight to an uneven globalisation of the world economy’ (2003, p.274-275). This demonstrates that regionalism has emerged as a tool in an attempt to provide equity in an economically unequal world.

This is especially true with some of the smaller and weaker Asian economies such as Thailand and Vietnam who see membership of ASEAN as a way of  not only improving trade with other nations in the same region, but of  benefiting from collective action when trading in the international trading system.

This is because newly industrial or developing nations, find it easier to trade with countries that are near rather than with distant ones, for the simple reason that cultural and business differences are fewer, transport costs are lower, and customers are more likely to be interested in products close to their own lifestyle. The counterweight argument globalisation is another example of why, in this age of globalisation, regional arrangements still emerge and continue to thrive. 

Regionalism also provides security benefits to smaller nations, especially the smaller countries in Southeast Asia. Individual countries may not have the sway to influence these two powerful countries but collectively, ASEAN does encourage peace and security in the region. Also, regional pressure on hostile neighbours outside the region would be better accepted from a body such as ASEAN or the EU.

While globalisation still seems to be the ultimate goal, regionalism has been chosen to as government’s preferred way to further their national interest and to ensure international security. Regional blocs are also a dynamic and ever changing system, which expands and transforms in response to the internal and external environment. Regionalism can coexist with globalisation because the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

List of References

Gavin, G (2007) “Reconciling Regionalism and Multilateralism: Towards Multilevel Trade Governance,” in Philippe De Lombaerde (ed). Multilateralism, Regionalism and Bilateralism in Trade and Investment. 2006 World Report on Regional Integration Springer, 59-72.

Griffith, M and O’Callaghan, T. (2003) International Relations: Key Concepts (Routledge: New York)

McCormick, J (1999) Understanding the European Union: a concise introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Murray, P. 2010. (2010) “Comparative regional integration in the EU and East Asia: Moving beyond integration snobbery.” International Politics, Vol. 47, 3/4, 1-16

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