Currency of power

Humphrey Hawksley on a collection of essays that explore the internal and external challenges faced by East Asia in a shifting world order, and the scope for unity in the region

Asia has a geographical reach and cultural diversity unlike any other continent. It stretches east from Turkey’s Bosporus to the shores of Hawaii and south from the Russian Far East to the southern tip of East Timor, or to Antarctica if we want to take in Australia and New Zealand.

Unlike with Europe, there is no pan-Asian shared value, no predominant religion, no one-fits-all political system. The name ‘Asia’ does not even originate from there. It comes the Greek word Ἀσία, coined by Herodotus, meaning east of the Aegean Sea – in other words, a conglomeration of sea and land that is not Europe.

As Nayan Chanda writes in The Future of East Asia, this is ‘an extraordinarily diverse set of states, communities, and cultures that have interacted for millennia via trade, migration, cultural transmission, religion, as well as harsher means such as military conquest and political subjugation’.

East Asia is the continent’s engine of economic growth and its most ambitious political laboratory where experiments in both high-end autocracy and democracy have flourished.

The question, therefore, is: how will East Asia evolve, and what influence will that have on the rest of Asia, indeed around the world?

The Future of East Asia is a highly readable and insightful collection of essays by nine contributors, specialists in a region that has become critical to the world order and hence, all our lives.

The central thesis speculates on the viability of an imagined East Asian Community for which, at present, there are no formal plans or initiatives. Common ground and motive for setting up such an institution are plentiful, as are obstacles that make the idea fraught with danger.

East Asia is home to three of the world’s big economies – China, Japan and South Korea, which between them account for 18 per cent of trade and 21 per cent of gross domestic product.

This is also where rival value systems come face to face: China and its ambitious experiment with unelected one-party rule and Japan with America’s post-war success in bringing Western-style democracy to an Asian culture.

East Asia also plays host to the harshest and most enduring dictatorship in North Korea, as well as to South Korea and Taiwan, both of which have made the journey from impoverished authoritarianism to become first-world economies and democracies.

Yet, despite its success, East Asia remains so riddled with disunity that it has no formal mechanism through which it can operate. South Asia and Southeast Asia have theirs in the form of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), although even they both have their fair share of acrimony and bad history.

So why not in East Asia? On the one hand, East Asia is crying out for an institution to exploit its economic prowess, particularly given the Confucian-style cultures that straddle China, Japan and the Korean Peninsula.

But scratch the surface, and we find unresolved grievances and old rivalries raising their heads.

‘Revival of geopolitical discourses associated with China’s rise has triggered negative chain reactions among China, Japan, and South Korea in their threat perception, action and reaction, severely undercutting chances for trust-building and cooperation, ‘argues Chung-in Moon, one of the book’s editors. ‘Such geopolitical confrontation might pose the most formidable barrier to cooperation.’

The Greeks may have invented the concept of One Asia by lumping together its bundle of cultures and societies as a single entity east of Europe. But it was Japan that tried to consolidate the vision into reality with its brutal colonisation and the setting up of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in the 1930s.

It didn’t work. That disaster, culminating in the Pacific War and America’s nuclear strikes, has left Asian governments wary of big visions and high-minded politics.  Neither SAARC nor ASEAN punches above its weight. Attempts to set up Asian military alliances such as the ill-fated South East Asian Treaty Organisation of the 1970s have ended in failure.

Therefore, East Asia – indeed the continent as whole –is falling back on its time-honoured culture of trade and deal-making, and it is through this that the authors envisage that some form of regional institution could finally emerge.

‘Power, as always, is the currency of international relations in this area, which leaves very little room for liberal or constructive elements to play a role,’ writes Ruizhuang Zhang. ‘In short, power politics is still the name of the game in East Asia international relations.’

What appear to be slowly unfolding are regional trading blocs from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum which share practical goals and, in some areas, actual personnel.

The Western-led 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has replaced the Obama-sponsored TPP, from which President Donald Trump withdrew.  The CPTPP is due to start its work next year with the aim of building a free-trading bloc with high legal and technical standards. At present, it excludes China.

For its part, China is putting together the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which it is underpinning with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), created in 2016. It is here that we begin to see common purpose.

The AIIB is supported by all major Western governments except Japan and the United States. It proudly states that its standards of due diligence are accepted by the World Bank and its sister institution, the Asian Development Bank, both Western-led financial institutions.

While these institutions that may have begun life as rivals, there is a high probability that elements will merge on a transactional basis for pragmatic reasons. Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, for example, are signed up to both the AIIB and CPTPP.

Armed with evidence, statistics and sources, The Future of East Asia also attempts to explode current myths surrounding the weakening of the Western-led liberal world order and the strength of a rising China.  It concludes that Beijing’s focus remains on consolidating its domestic situation, rather than land and sea power grabs, and that America will continue to lead the global order for decades to come.

If correct, East Asia has time to work out ways to ‘conduct multilateral governance over issues that divide in this region’. The costs of not doing so would be too high, caution the authors.

With its skilfully crafted arguments, this is a vital handbook for anyone studying Asia, involved in government or doing business there. It also carries a caution against trying to make Asia something that it is not and never has been.

‘Any attempt to put the continent into a political straitjacket,’ warns Chanda, ‘…or coerce it through military means will not only ruin Asia’s DNA of open collaboration and tolerance but also produce a backlash.’


Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Asia Correspondent. His new book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Asia-Pacific and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion

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