Research Achievements

GIARI & Political Integration and Identity

Research:Publications:Working Papers FY2010(english-8,japanese-4)

ASEAN+3: Becoming more like a normal regionalism? / Takashi Terada


Working Papers

Excellent papers on Asian regional integration, which are prepared mainly by young researchers such as GIARI members, co-researchers, research fellows, and research assistants, will be published as working papers. Contributed papers, written in English or in Japanese, will be reviewed and examined by the editorial committee before publication. GIARI donates published papers to the libraries of Waseda and other related universities, research organizations, etc.

GIARI Working Paper Vol. 2010-E-4

ASEAN+3: Becoming more like a normal regionalism?

Takashi Terada
Professor, Organization for Asian Studies,
Waseda University

February 2011

A revised version will be published as a chapter in Mark Beeson and Richard Stubbs (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Asian Regionalism, Routledge, 2011.


  • Introduction
  • Origins
  • U.S. exclusion
  • ASEAN-centred approach
  • Financial cooperation
  • Transforming features: more like a normal regionalism?
  • US engagement in East Asian regionalism
  • Emerging ‘+3’ cooperation
  • More multilateral approaches
  • Conclusion


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Plus Three (hereafter ASEAN+3) began discreetly in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997 as a symbolic sideline event marking the 30th anniversary of ASEAN. Malaysia, which held the ASEAN Chair, invited only three leaders from China, Japan and South Korea. It was believed that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed finally had succeeded in materialising his long-cherished East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) plan, which had been strongly opposed by the US during the early 1990s. However, the inaugural ASEAN+3 Informal Summit Meeting was held in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, and Mahathir only proposed that the ASEAN+3 leaders meet in 1998. Vietnam, the next ASEAN Chair, also invited leaders from three Northeast Asian countries to the Hanoi summit, ensuring the further institutionalisation of East Asian regional cooperation. It was only after the ASEAN+3 Finance Ministers Meeting in Hanoi in March of 1999 that the term ‘ASEAN+3’ was widely used. Finally, the ‘Joint Statement on East Asia Cooperation’ was launched for the first time in history by the 13 heads of government at the 3rd Informal Summit Meeting in Manila in November 1999. The Statement broadly describes the aim of the ASEAN+3 meetings, but the fact that all leaders from East Asian states gathered and launched the joint statement as a collective voice for East Asia was critical symbolically.

It was not until the 2000 ASEAN+3 Finance Ministers Meeting that East Asian regionalism established a substantive and concrete regional cooperation mechanism. This was the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI), which included a network of currency swapping and repurchasing arrangements, and showed the degree of the impact 1997-8 financial crisis on East Asian nations. Since then, the ASEAN+3 process has expanded the areas of functional cooperation, which now includes senior officials, ministerial and heads-of-governments meetings. As a result, ASEAN+3 now covers twenty policy areas with fifty-seven bodies, including one Summit, fourteen ministerials, nineteen Senior Officials, two Directors-General, eighteen technical-level meetings and two other track meetings and establishing itself as a fully-fledged regional institution in East Asia. Although another regional institution representing East Asia, the East Asian Summit (EAS), was established in 2005 as a result of a power struggle between China and Japan (and the United States), ASEAN+3 is now viewed as ‘the main vehicle towards achieving an East Asian community,’ while EAS is referred to as playing a ‘complementary’ role according to the 2ndSecond joint statement launched by ASEAN+3 leaders in 2007.

The first ten years of ASEAN+3 were characterized by three features which appeared to challenge established orthodoxies of the study of regionalism. First, ASEAN+3 is the first regional institution in Asia that excludes the United States as an official member. The United States had previously demolished any Asian regional proposal which excluded its participation, as seen in cases of the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) and Asian Monetary Fund (AMF). There are at least three reasons behind the US absence or exclusion from ASEAN+3: the US disengagement from the Asian financial crisis; Malaysia’s decision not to invite non-East Asian nations to the inaugural ASEAN+3 summit in 1997; and the US ‘benign neglect’ attitude towards ASEAN+3 development. The second feature is that financial cooperation as embodied in CMI became the first and foremost agenda in ASEAN+3, illustrating an anomaly from the conventional path of regional integration taken elsewhere (Dieter and Higgott 2003). This bilateral approach to financial cooperation, together with a constellation of bilateral rather than regional Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), signified the lack of a regional approach to formal integration in East Asia. Finally, as the name ‘ASEAN Plus Three’ signifies, ASEAN, as a group of fragmented and relatively small economies unable to enjoy the benefits of economies of scale in production, has been allowed to organise the annual summits in Southeast Asia, treating the three big powers in Northeast Asia as guests. This position of ASEAN makes it possible for the ASEAN leaders to advocate for ASEAN centrality in East Asian cooperation, while powerful nations such as Japan and China that normally take a leadership role in regional institutions and integration have seemingly taken on a secondary role. However, ASEAN’s capability to lead East Asian regionalism has been questioned by scholars such as Jones and Smith, and the question of who leads and who becomes a driving force has been a major contested issue in the ASEAN+3 intellectual discourse.

This paper aims to examine these three features in order to illustrate the uniqueness of the birth and growth of ASEAN+3, an unusual regional institution. It then argues that East Asia, especially in the ASEAN+3 process, has witnessed the transformation of these three features since 2009 due to three factors. First, increased US engagement in East Asia has been propelled by the Obama administration partly through its participation in the East Asian Summit (EAS), representing a sharp contrast to the apathetic attitude under the Bush administration. Second, the momentum behind Trilateral cooperation among China, Japan and Korea has been growing, which appears to challenge the ASEAN centrality formula. Finally, regional integration through ‘+3’ and ‘+6’ frameworks officially began, driven by the establishment of government-involved feasibility studies of regional FTAs as well as the multilateralisation of CMI, a development which represents a moving away from a bilateralism-oriented integration approach for East Asia. Although Webber (2010) asserts that from the perspective of European experiences, ASEAN+3 has been promoting cooperation and not integration, more than ten years has passed since its establishment and these recent changes may suggest a possible employment of more serious approaches to regional integration in East Asia.