A shared pathA bullet train has come to a screeching halt at a sheer cliff face. South Korea and its neighbors have had a staggering run economically and in other areas, coming close to stealing the center stage of the global map in the 21st century. Now that progress seems to have abruptly stopped. East Asian countries have become fragile and quarrelsome.
The fissures are not caused by natural disasters, trade or reduced tourism, but by escalating political and military conflicts. East Asian skies last week became a dangerous performance space for new-generation fighter jets. The East Asian bloc may have fallen victim to a “curse of success” after its unwavering economic progress.
What has brought about such misfortune?
It is true that East Asian countries have individually been so engrossed in restoring their pride and building their wealth and military might that they neglected the joint work of preparing for the next stage. Asian countries were disgraced and victimized by imperial rivalries among global powers during the 19th century. After the modern era began, they were forced to make black-and-white decisions in establishing national systems during the ideological power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Amid the twist and turns of events, East Asian nations weathered historical crosscurrents and somehow built their countries to today’s impressive size. But they failed to build a new order in the region that would ensure a peaceful neighborhood without impairing their own national visions. The neglect has brought about the current fallout.
During transitional periods of history, where the balance of power in politics, economics, military and culture shifts, a sense of insecurity dominates and muddles up international relations. In order to overcome instability during transitional times, it is essential to come up with a framework to bring regional countries together based on objective judgments and long-term perspectives.
Who would be most qualified to take on such an initiative? We can hardly expect help from the self-serving political or corporate sectors. The best candidate could come from academia, which focuses on objective and comprehensive research.
The Besetoha forum of university presidents met for an annual conference in Seoul last week at a critical juncture. Besetoha refers to Peking University in Beijing, Seoul National University, the University of Tokyo and Vietnam National University in Hanoi.
Presidents of the four representative East Asian universities were of one voice in emphasizing the need to build a community spirit for the sake of Asia’s future, while expressing concern and regret about the lack of understanding among East Asian countries. Geographic proximity does not ensure mutual understanding, and can actually breed misunderstanding and suspicion. Asian countries, in fact, have more interest and knowledge about European and Middle Eastern nations than their own neighbors.
Wang Enge, a physics professor and president of Peking University, said that universities should feel responsible for the lack of cultural and social understandings in the Asian community. Oh Yeon-cheon, president of Seoul National University, stressed that it is time for East Asian society to ruminate on how the world would view its attitude and understanding of regional neighbors.
President of the University of Tokyo, Junichi Hamada, suggested a new direction in common research work on the region by introducing the concept of “Asianization of Asia.” He underscored that regional members should develop and champion education in regional languages as much as in English. For example, a study on Japan would gain a lot if scholars from other Asian regions add their input into the work.
Phung Xuan Nha, president of Vietnam National University, highlighted cultural exchanges as the best way to increase understanding among East Asian societies. The heads of such elite universities - discussing ways to cooperate in research and human resources by allowing greater openings to foreign students, co-sharing school credits, opening borderless online courses and drawing up common guidelines on evaluations in Asian universities - offered hope for a common path beyond the ongoing political conflict.
It is not too late to start a journey on a common path. Asian pride is on the line. There is no time to lose on narrow sentimentalism and nationalistic sentiments. Common sense must not be swayed by emotional sensationalism arising from public involvement on various media platforms.
Asians must jointly create guidelines with reciprocal equality to comply with Asian sentiments and norms, and work together to turn the region into the center stage of a truly global village. Let’s just hope that the confrontations and tensions we have seen in our region lately are merely the growing pains before a leap forward onto a common path shared by many.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author, a former prime minister, is adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.