Saturday, November 6, 2010

Challenges to the Elusive Asian Century

This is an article I wish I did not have to write. As an Asian, a student of history and a person who spent a lifetime in the Singaporean foreign service, I have waited for Asia to move to the center stage of world affairs.

Asians have waited very long.

Since the advent of colonialism destroyed ancient patterns of interaction among Asian countries, this continent has been at the mercy of historical trajectories originating from beyond the region.

The rise of China and India in the period of globalization that followed the end of the cold war gave Asians cause for cautious hope that the global economic and political center of gravity was finally moving toward them.

That movement would complete the great shifts that had seen the center move from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and to the Pacific.

The oceans would still remain important, but continental Asia would host the new Athens, the new Rome, the new London, the new New York.

How easily delusions take hold of the eager mind! A mere decade into its apparent arrival, the Asian Century looks increasingly elusive.

In the space of the past few months, simmering tensions between China and India have come to the fore.

Asked about China’s reference to Jammu and Kashmir as “India-controlled Kashmir,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that Beijing could be tempted to use India’s “soft underbelly” — Kashmir and Pakistan — “to keep India in low-level equilibrium.”

This is hardly the kind of relationship that Asians would have envisaged between the continent’s two major powers.

What makes Sino-Indian discord astonishing is that it is occurring even as the economic relationship between the two Asian giants is burgeoning.

Those who believe that free trade contributes decisively to peace must ask themselves a further question: If this is what can occur despite good economic ties, what cannot occur if those ties sour?

Meanwhile, a territorial spat between China and Japan grabbed the headlines for a good many days last month.

Without going into the merits of the conflicting claims to the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, noticeable was the almost visceral fury with which Beijing responded to Tokyo’s detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler that had collided with Japanese coast guard vessels.

What began as an incident that could have been settled diplomatically — this being the reason ministries of foreign affairs exist — turned into an exhibition of nationalist fervor.

Admittedly, territorial disputes are politically the most difficult to resolve because they involve space, without which no nation can exist.

But what the spat revealed was that Asia’s growing economic influence is yet to be matched by political maturity in handling diplomatic disputes.

Without that maturity, Asia’s rise will remain woefully incomplete.

As for the dispute over the South China Sea, this area might well replace the Korean Peninsula as Asia’s chief flashpoint.

Again, this is not the place to go into the rights and the wrongs of the various parties to the dispute.

What bears noting is that the dispute has turned the spotlight on China’s emergence as a heavyweight in regional affairs.

Those who believe that Asean utilized the South China Sea issue to give the United States a new foothold in East Asia must ask who set the ball rolling this time around.

It was the Chinese declaration of the South China Sea as a “core interest” that alarmed Asean countries because it implied that Beijing’s maritime claims had the same national status as its claims over Taiwan and Tibet.

Since sovereignty is by definition absolute and non-negotiable, and can be backed by force to make it credible, did the Chinese declaration mean that Beijing would treat conflicting claims in the South China Sea as challenges to its national sovereignty, to be met with the threat or use of force?

Combine this stance with the worrying candor inherent in China’s statement that there are large countries and small ones, and it is no wonder that Asean countries severally, if not jointly, welcomed the return of the United States to the region.

The United States has declared its “national interest” in “freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

Though the United States did not take a stance on the territorial disputes, its declaration was broad enough to potentially challenge the Chinese position.

All this has led Donald Emmerson, head of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University, to declare that “China has come close to deleting the first letter in its heralded ‘charm offensive’ in Southeast Asia.”

If that were to occur, it would be bad not only for China but also for the rest of Asia.

In Southeast Asia, certainly, which continues to enjoy the fruits of China’s growth, no one has a stake in worsening relations with China; no one wants to derail Asia’s rise.

The Asian Century does deserve a chance. And only Asians can give themselves that chance.

By K. Kesavapany director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and Singapore’s non-resident ambassador to Jordan.

East Asia Forum

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