From Community to Security in Asia

MANILA – Visitors are often catalysts for change. Barack Obama’s just concluded visit to Asia may be no different, for his trip left Asia and its leaders wondering just what sort of regional community they are building.

The modern sense of building a pan-Asian community began with the traumatic East Asian financial and economic crisis of 1997, when all the countries of the Asia-Pacific region learned the hard way that national reforms and protections could turn out to be woefully inadequate. Soon afterwards, a consensus formed among many Asian leaders that broader cooperation and coordination was needed.

Even during that 1997 crisis, this lesson was already being recognized, for the members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) remained committed to trade liberalization, one of the key forces that helped restart growth in Asia’s economies. Indeed, the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in 1997 designated 15 major sectors – including automobiles, chemicals, energy assets, and environmental measures – for early liberalization. Looking back at Asia’s economic growth over the past 12 years, it is clear that liberalization of trade and investment paid off.

Realizing that economics cannot be neatly separated from politics, APEC soon began to include security issues in its agenda. In 2002, APEC’s leaders launched the STAR initiative, establishing a “Secure Trade Area in the APEC Region.”