East Asia has been the fastest growing area in the world in recent decades. Starting with Japan in the 1950s, East Asian countries have consecutively taken part in the global economic system and have become connected with each other through the market economy. East Asia is among the most economically integrated regions along with Europe and North America. The intra-regional trade share of East Asia (ASEAN+3) in 2014 was as high as 45 percent, much greater than 26 percent in North America and 18 percent in Latin America, and only lower than the 65 percent in the European Union.
In contrast, the institutional regional architecture of East Asia is much less developed and falling far behind actual integration. While there is NAFTA in North America, MERCOSUR in Latin America, and the EU in Europe, there is no comparable region-wide arrangement in East Asia yet. This does not mean East Asia lacks institutional arrangements, but just the reverse, there are too many institutions covering various issue areas. Since the first subregional institution, ASEAN, was established in 1967, a number of regional and pan-regional economic integration initiatives have been launched, such as APEC in 1989, ASEAN+3 in 1997, the East Asia Summit in 2005, Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2009, China-Japan- Korea FTA and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2012, along with other sub-, trans-, and pan-regional groupings in the political, financial, and security areas. The fragmentation in the approaches toward East Asian regional integration reflects the region’s unique historical, cultural, and political characteristics. In particular, the competition for influence between China, Japan, and the United States results in somewhat overlapping but also conflicting patterns of regional integration.
As the biggest country in the region, China was once the indisputable center of East Asia in cultural, economic, and military terms. As a responsible stakeholder in the area, China has been active in advancing regional integration. However, subjective goodwill is far from enough to produce the desired outcome. China should be more pragmatic about the future of East Asian institutional regional architecture.