[FORUM]Asia: a diamond in the mud

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[FORUM]Asia: a diamond in the mud

China is rising; Japan is recovering and India is closing in. So, where is Asia heading? Is New Asia in the making? If so, is there any institution to accommodate this new trend?
Asia is vast and diverse. It is hard to pinpoint where it starts and ends. This geographic ambiguity has led to economic and political ambivalence as well. Such an attitude served the Asian leaders well as they were divided by the Cold War mindsets. Fifteen years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Asia has yet to overcome their prejudices.
While they are more willing and comfortable to cooperate in economic areas, they are still recalcitrant to forge close collaboration in political and social areas. Economic powerhouses such as China and Japan still continue to squabble with their past animosity, instead of looking towards the future. Without their reconciliation, the future of Asia rests on muddy ground.
With China’s growing confidence, the rest of Asia has to shift and change its policy. After years of expediency, Beijing has now tightened the screws, demanding ASEAN countries to stick to the one-China policy. More protests from China have been registered in the past five years against ASEAN countries on what Beijing described as a double standard policy toward China. Outside the region, China has adopted more benign behavior. China repeatedly emphasizes its commitment to international laws and abides by UN regulations and resolutions.
Apart from the United Nations, the Asian countries still do not have a genuine institution for them to come together. The establishment of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1989 was conceived as an informal forum to bring in together the Pacific economies, especially the U.S. and the rich Northeast Asian countries.
The acknowledgement of China’s rising power came a decade later with the setting up of the ASEAN Regional Forum. At first, it was conceived as a platform to engage, or rather to contain, China. As it turned out that was no longer the case, China has become so active in the region’s only security forum that it has become the main driving force, much to the chagrin of the Western members.
As China rises, Japan is worried for fear that it would cost Asia’s largest economy its dominant position. Although Japan’s overall economy is on the path to recovery and its relations with ASEAN remain rock-solid, they lack the dynamism that one often uses to describe the current China-ASEAN friendship. For the past three decades, Japan was the only dominant power in Asia and henceforth has become complacent with the region.
As China and Japan are fine-tuning their roles in Asia, India has finally stepped into the Asian arena. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proposed in July the establishment of an Asian Community with India as a member. It was an ambitious idea given India’s nascent position in the overall scheme of things in Asia. Singh reiterated that India is part of Asia and wants to accelerate his country’s integration with the region. With its ongoing economic reform and liberalization, India is fast becoming a destination for foreign investment. Asia should benefit from it. India’s economic rise is now featuring in all discussions pertaining to the future of Asia. Since its independence, India has looked inward within its vast subcontinent. With the world’s largest democracy and its computer software wizardry in the picture, will future Asian integration accelerate or slow down?
Asia is still very fragmented despite all the encouraging signs of growing East Asian-ness. The much heralded diversity in unity concept, which was hailed and often quoted by the Asian leaders, has not promoted the further solidarity of East Asia and broader Asia at all. Instead, it has been used as an excuse for those countries wanting exclusivity to prevail and to remain disengaged from the common Asian future.
Asian leaders do not lack vision, but they lack the political will that would make visions of a New Asia materialize. Some are happy to turn a blind eye to sensitive issues, knowing full well that sooner or later they will blow up in their faces. As long as Asian countries are happy in euphemisms without further action, New Asia will remain, as it has been, a diamond buried in the mud.

* The author is the assistant group editor and publisher of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok. This column is an excerpts from his keynote address to the 9th Asia Europe Forum on Monday.

by Kavi Chongkittavorn
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