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Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012

Early end to Asia's century?

Special to The Japan Times

TAIPEI — Not so long ago, it was fashionable to talk about the "Asian Century." The early years of this millennium were characterized by an almost gushing infatuation and admiration for all things Asian. Universities formed classes to examine the "rise of Asia" while think tanks and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) equipped specialist teams "to understand Asia."

From banking to broadcasting, companies swiveled their sights and set eyes on the East. This is understandable. The concept of the Asian Century provided a narrative when the world needed one. The Cold War was over. The United States' unipolar moment had subsided. The 21st century would belong to the great civilizations of Asia.

At the time, the awe was justified; large swaths of the continent were experiencing substantial economic and societal reconfiguration. Reform seemed near and those tensions, which had marred regional politics for decades, seemed increasingly distant. The idea of an Asian Century became a lens with which to comprehend changes in the world — an overarching framework to which we could attribute events. Of course, the concept as an analytical tool is deeply flawed and academics have been quick to point out its many holes. It is impossible to discuss Asia as an amorphous homogenous entity because Asia, as it is understood in the public imagination, does not really exist.

In reality, it is a plethora of different things; a myriad of juxtaposed cultures, identities, ethnicities and borders, which cannot be categorized using such broad strokes. In this sense, the Asian Century is an orientalist ideal — a misconceived Western-centric notion, which is used to bracket the supposed incomprehensible diversity. Talk of the riches to be found in Shanghai or the unexploited markets in Myanmar were undoubtedly also popular topics in the colonial heyday.

Equally, the idea that "Asia is rising" is also myopic to anyone with a broad knowledge of history. Finally, it seems impossible to promulgate such an idea when the people of the continent, however you choose to define it, are not only hesitant to equate economic growth with global responsibility, but are reluctant to admit that growth should lead to greater global responsibility.

China, whose stampeding economy stoked the contemporary interest in Asia, is a case in point. Although now the world's second largest economy, China is unwilling to match its economic prowess with global leadership duties and is rather content with the passenger seat when it comes to driving issues of global importance.

It is unfortunate that the strategic and economic realities facing Asian countries are quickly becoming as problematic as the terminology once used to describe them. Indeed, if the current trajectory remains undisrupted, it seems that Asia's century will be "nasty, brutish and short." The lessons of history loom large and it would be very wise for Asian countries to cast more than a cursory glance at early 20th-century European history.

The international relations of Asian nations were never harmonious. In fact, as a result of the burdens of history and political ideologies, they were often quite bitter. However, for a fleeting moment at the start of this century it seemed like the quest for economic prosperity would trump the lingering feuds, which had always festered just below the surface. Steps toward reform in authoritarian states and the solidification of pluralistic politics in democratic nations gave the notion even greater hope.

However, recent events provide considerable cause to worry. Territorial disputes are increasingly being set out in intractable terms. Nations are quick to declare territory as "inseparable" and even quicker to mobilize quasi-military units to defend the land (or lack thereof in the case of a number of maritime disputes) in question.

Such behavior negates the possibility of diplomatic negotiation and can only result in conflict if left unchecked. Domestic nationalism is playing a huge role in forcing the governments' hands in these disputes, but such jingoism is merely a product of a government's influence on its citizens. The tone it sets in its domestic politics is absorbed and then echoed through the loudspeaker of public outcry.

In Europe, governments used to be very quick to mobilize military units and even quicker to encourage public displays of infuriation. The end results were something that should never be repeated today.

Last month, for the first time in its 45 year history, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional bloc failed to issue a joint statement at the conclusion of its annual summit — a move widely attributed to pressure placed on Cambodia, the host country, by China.

While it could be easy to dismiss this as the norm for supranational projects, this development is deeply symbolic and very worrying. ASEAN stresses an approach known as the "ASEAN way" — a broad political philosophy, where countries aim to avoid disputes and rather promote unity through harmony.

The ASEAN way can be thanked for 45 years of joint statements and broad political agreement between the nations of Southeast Asia. Unity is ASEAN's raison d'etre; it is unity and consensus which ASEAN members hope will put an end to conflict in the region. If Chinese economic coercion is enough to break the collective ideal of a community of nations, then the future does indeed look very bleak.

Unlike Europe and, to a lesser extent, the U.S., economic growth in many Asian nations remains very robust. However, even compared with the serious financial and political problems that are facing Western nations, an end to Asia's fragile coexistence seems a frightening prospect.

It is often suggested that trade plays an important role in mitigating conflict and there is considerable evidence to support this idea. However, although Asian nations are trading more, they are also bolstering their military capacities and quietly preparing for the worst — not unlike the UK and Germany in the years prior to 1914. We can only hope this assessment is misguided.

John Maynard Keynes famously said: "When the facts change, I change my opinion." This holds true for the aforementioned thoughts. For the sake of all the citizens in Asia, let's hope the facts begin to change.

Bryan Harris is an NGO adviser and lecturer based in Taiwan.

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