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Bilateral Free Trade Agreements: Boon or Bane for Regionalism in East Asia and the Asia-pacific?

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Since the late 1990s there has been a rapid proliferation of bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) projects in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, regions previously largely devoid of FTA activity by comparison to others. As this trend has intensified, so have discussions on whether it will help advance regional co-operation and integration. This paper examines the nature of FTAs themselves and the main causes of East Asia and Asia-Pacific FTAs. The 'lattice regionalism' hypothesis is considered: whether dense economic bilateralism provides a sub-structural foundation on which economic regionalism (i.e. co-operation and integration) can build. Closely related is the issue of competing FTA models and modalities in the Asia-Pacific, and special attention is afforded to the 'asymmetric neoliberal' FTA model of the United States and the 'developmental–industrial' FTA model championed by Japan. It is argued that the contrasts between these make the emergence of an Asia-Pacific FTA unlikely in even the distant future. Japan's FTA model is also considered relative to perhaps East Asia's most important FTA project, the ASEAN–China FTA (ACFTA), and we discuss how bilateral FTA developments in the region more generally may or may not lead to enhanced regional economic co-operation and integration in East Asia.

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