Can CAMPUS Asia bring a closer East Asia?

At a talk at City University of Hong Kong on 13 November Dr Yukio Hatoyama, president of the East Asian Community Institute, outlined a vision of an East Asian Community based on the spirit of fraternity, cooperation and empathy.

The role of the Collective Action for Mobility Program of University Students in Asia – CAMPUS Asia – would be to act as a platform for community building towards establishing an East Asian Community, he said.

Launched in 2012, CAMPUS Asia is China, Japan and South Korea’s version of Europe’s Erasmus programme, a student mobility programme between the three developed North East Asian nations, which might eventually extend to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN countries.

But what is the practical use of regional mobility programmes, especially within the context of North East Asia? What is their role in region building, their challenges and implications, especially in a region characterised by historical hostilities – linked to colonialism and war – as well as economic competition and ongoing territorial disputes?

Will the North East Asian student mobility programme increase student mobility? And in what way does it contribute to East Asian community building?

CAMPUS Asia and regional integration

Although designed based on Europe’s Erasmus programme, CAMPUS Asia faces key challenges that hinder higher education collaboration and its role in regional integration.

Firstly, while the concept of an East Asian community is not novel, it has historically been associated with ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – as its core.

Historical efforts to establish a non-ASEAN centred East Asian Community have failed due to either a lack of legitimacy and-or capacity of the contenders for regional leadership.

In fact, the China, Japan and South Korea Free Trade Agreement negotiations only started in mid-2012, while the ASEAN Free Trade Area was established in 1992 and various ASEAN-based free trade agreements have been signed and even implemented over the past years.

Secondly, the East Asian production network which used to see both Japan and South Korea (among other countries) as innovation and creativity providers, China as the manufacturing base and a number of Southeast Asian countries as raw (or semi-processed) material suppliers, tends to challenge regional integration initiatives focused only on the three North East Asian countries.

China’s recent drive to move up the value chain not only changes the nature and structure of the East Asian production network, but also the relationship among the broader East Asian – taken as ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea – countries and their economies.

Thirdly, China and South Korea are net higher education importers, while Japan is a net higher education exporter.

Based on UNESCO Institute of Statistics data, mainland Chinese and South Korean tertiary students not only account for 15.8% and 3.9% of internationally mobile tertiary students globally, but also represent roughly 80% (61.13% and 18.12% respectively) of Japan’s inbound tertiary students as of 2010.

Furthermore, China sends 23.51% of its outbound tertiary students to South Korea, which represents 77.3% of South Korea's inbound tertiary students. On the other hand, the number of South Korean students studying in China has dramatically increased by 244% from 18,267 in 2003 to 62,855 in 2011.

For this reason, CAMPUS Asia’s mobility impact would be minimal and should be focused on Japan’s outward mobility to the other two countries, which can be boosted based on bilateral agreements.

Towards an East Asian community

A China-Japan-South Korea student mobility programme, however, shows a desire for collaboration – at least in higher education – and provides an alternative diplomatic platform and the opportunity to learn from each other’s higher education systems, culture and economy.

East Asian regionalism, however, needs to be properly defined within a broader ASEAN plus three framework to support regionalisation developments that have taken place over the past decades and the well established East Asian production network.

Furthermore, regional student mobility would be better directed towards a broader region and not limited to the three developed North East Asian nations in order to encourage increased understanding of the diverse political, socio-economic and cultural contexts within the region, and also to enhance possible peaceful solutions towards historical and ongoing conflicts that have emerged within the East Asian region.

Lastly, regional student mobility should not be limited to North-North cooperation, but should also focus on North-South and South-South cooperation, given the greatly expanded learning, socio-cultural and diplomatic benefits that arise from a broader regional higher education exchange programme.

As such, it seems sensible to propose studying ongoing regional student exchange programmes within the East Asian region, the establishment of a broader and integrated framework for East Asian student exchange, and developing a truly East Asian higher education network to support East Asian region building towards the establishment of a sustainable East Asian community.

Given the reality that students of today will determine the future of the region, increased exposure and engagement with East Asian students may bring a glimmer of hope of building lasting peace and economic prosperity in a broader East Asian community.

* Roger Y Chao Jr is a PhD candidate in Asian and international studies at City University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong. His research mostly focuses on regionalism, higher education and internationalisation of higher education.