Relational ontology and the politics of boundary-making: East Asian financial regionalism

Published date01 February 2019
Date01 February 2019
Subject MatterSpecial Section Articles
2019, Vol. 39(1) 18 –34
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0263395718779938
Relational ontology and the
politics of boundary-making:
East Asian financial regionalism
Yong Wook Lee
Korea University, Seoul, Korea
In this article, I seek to demonstrate the analytical utility and value-added of ‘relational ontology’
for studying region-making and regional institutional developments. Relational ontology stands
in sharp contrast to the dominant individualistic ontology found in mainstream theories of
regionalism. I make the case theoretically and empirically that relational ontology offers a better
analytical fit with the investigation of regionalism. Analytically, the crux of relational ontology is the
notion that the structure of identity and interests emerges and develops relationally in the process
of one’s making contact with and subsequently marking boundary with others in relevant contexts.
More concretely, I develop a three-stage analytics of boundary-making. The analytical framework
proposes three sequential stages of ‘proto-boundary’, ‘yoking’, and ‘rationalization’ towards the
making of a boundary that creates ‘inside’ by defining ‘outside’. This boundary-making practice is
empirically observable in the politics of membership when regional institutional buildings occur.
I illustrate the validity of the relational analytical framework with a case of the exclusive East
Asian financial regionalism. My empirical focus is on the institutional development of the Chiang
Mai Initiative (the CMI/CMIM (Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization)) over the past 15 years, a
regional financial safety net in East Asia. In terms of membership, the ASEAN plus Three (China,
Japan, and Korea) developed it while excluding the United States from membership.
ASEAN Plus Three, boundary-making, collective identity, East Asian financial regionalism,
relational ontology
Received: 23th October 2017; Revised version received: 27th February 2018; Accepted: 19th March 2018
As Peter Katzenstein (2005) noted, one of the key characteristics of world politics is the
rise of regionalism in the face of globalization. The European Union’s recent economic
and societal troubles notwithstanding, serious regional institutional-building efforts can
Corresponding author:
Yong Wook Lee, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Korea University, 145, Anam-
ro, Seongbuk-Gu, Seoul 02841, Korea.
Special Section Article
Lee 19
be observed elsewhere in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, Middle East, and East Asia
(Powers and Goertz, 2011). In this context, one of the most conspicuous phenomena in
East Asian1 economic relations in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) is the
development of what Grimes (2009: 2) calls ‘East Asian financial regionalism’. Under the
auspices of ASEAN Plus Three (APT), East Asian financial regionalism has been sup-
ported by three major initiatives: the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) in 2000, which was
subsequently redesignated as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM) in
2010 and which acts as the framework for a regional financial safety net; the Asian Bond
Markets Initiative (ABMI, 2002), which targets regional financial market development;
and an agreement to conduct in-depth research on the feasibility of an Asian Currency
Unit (ACU, 2006) in order to reduce currency volatility.
What is most striking about this regional institutional development is the exclusion of
the United States. This exclusion is puzzling for two main reasons. First, the decision to
spurn US input is unique in the history of East Asian economic cooperation. From the
establishment of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1966 through the Pacific
Economic Cooperation Conference (PECC) in 1980 to the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) in 1989, all major regional economic institutional-building efforts
have included the United States. Indeed, East Asian states have in the past actively sought
US participation in the regional make-up of the Asia-Pacific due to their structural eco-
nomic dependence on the US market and US investment (Kim and Lee, 2004: 207–212).
The failure of then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir’s East Asian Economic Caucus
(EAEC) proposal in 1995, which excluded the United States, to garner support from other
regional states is a case in point. Second, the exclusion of the United States seems to go
against East Asian states’ immediate material interests. The inclusion of the United States,
the largest investor in the global economy and home to the most advanced technical
expertise in terms of financial market development, could have made it much easier for
APT to institutionalize the CMIM (e.g. greater access to bailout funding) and the ABMI
(e.g. more expertise and investment from the United States in developing capital mar-
kets). In short, post-crisis East Asia seems to have moved from a ‘regional complex’ to a
‘regional society’ or a ‘regional community’ capable of ‘articulating the transnational
interests of the emerging region’ (Hettne and Söderbaum, 2000: 3–4).
What explains the development of this exclusionary form of East Asian financial
regionalism? In addressing this question, I seek to demonstrate the analytical utility of
relational ontology in the study of region-making and regional institutional development.
Relational ontology refers to a philosophical position in which the relations between enti-
ties are ontologically more fundamental than the entities themselves. This contrasts with
individualist ontology, in which entities are ontologically primary and their relations
ontologically derivative. I make the theoretical and empirical argument that relational
ontology provides a better analytical fit for the study of regionalism than the dominant
individualistic ontology present in mainstream theories of regionalism, such as (neo)
functionalism, neoliberal institutionalism, and realism.
With this in mind, I suggest an alternative three-stage analytical framework for bound-
ary-making that helps to capture the relational processes of making and sustaining a
regional boundary. This analytical framework proposes three sequential stages – ‘proto-
boundary’, ‘yoking’, and ‘rationalization’ – that lead to the formation of a clear boundary
by defining what is meant by ‘outside’, thus establishing the ‘inside’ of the boundary. I
develop this framework by drawing on Jackson and Nexon (1999), Abbott (2001), Tilly
(1995, 2004), and Bucher and Jasper (2016), among others. Because none of these works

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