The governments of China, Japan and South Korea announced this week they plan to hold regular meetings of their economic, finance and foreign ministers, a significant step in relations among these three nations.
These meetings will set in motion a process that may gradually shift the balance of power in East Asia. Beijing is emerging as a regional power while Seoul and Tokyo are both seeking a more independent foreign policy after decades of acting under the shadow of Washington.
The United States has long been a dominant force in the region, particularly in South Korea and Japan. But now the U.S. government is tied down in Afghanistan, and the strengthening of relations among Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo may make it more difficult for Washington to maintain influence in East Asia.
Steps toward increased regional unity were made during the ASEAN+3 summit this week in Brunei. The meeting involves the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, South Korea and Japan. The latter three are seeking to transform the association into a large, regional trade bloc similar to NAFTA or the European Union.
An agreement was made at the summit to try and bring China and the ASEAN nations together within 10 years. Such a trade bloc would cover 2 billion people in a region with a combined gross domestic product of $2 trillion. It would be the largest free-trade area in terms of population and the third-largest in terms of trade volume.
Seoul is promoting an even larger free-trade area. The proposed East Asian Free Trade Agreement would link all countries in the region into a trade bloc rivaling NAFTA. The idea is that it would help Asian economies cooperate rather than compete and give the bloc members greater leverage in bargaining with Europe and the Americas.
South Korea's proposal is raising interest among ASEAN members, who have often been overshadowed by their Northeast Asian neighbors. Including Japan and South Korea in a trade bloc with China would also help balance the sheer bulk of the Chinese economy.
It is still unclear how the United States will react to either possibility. Washington did oppose a proposal made years ago by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad that was similar to the planned ASEAN-China zone.
East Asia still has a long way to go before it is integrated into a unified economic bloc. National self-interests, intra-regional competition and lingering historical issues continue to plague efforts toward better ties. However, concrete steps are now being taken to bring the region closer together.
To a large extent, this effort reflects Asia's attempts to redefine a region facing both China's emerging economic power while still coping with the lingering effects of the economic crisis. It also reveals Asia's continuing slide away from the United States.
China has long argued that an unchallenged Washington is bad for the region. And South Korea and Japan, while not opposing the U.S. presence in East Asia, still wish to explore more independent foreign policy initiatives.
With the Cold War now ancient history, Seoul and Tokyo no longer receive the same special treatment they once did from Washington, and a rising sense of patriotism in both countries is bringing the overwhelming U.S. military, economic and political influence into question.
The United States will seek to revive its position in the region, following its recent military reassessment that called for strategic priorities to be focused more closely toward Asia. This was due in part to the rise of China and the massive instability in a number of countries throughout the continent.
However, a decade of decline, the U.S. focus on Afghanistan and Asia's growing sense of solidarity will make it increasingly difficult for the United States to once again play the dominant role in East Asian relations. Washington could see a reduction in support for some of its global policies and face increasing pressure from Asian nations for trade concessions and more U.S. investment.
Roger Baker is a senior analyst with STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. For more information about STRATFOR, click here.