Is Northeast Asia dangerous?
When I read Western journals I am struck by the consistent use of the term “dangerous neighborhood” to refer to Northeast Asia. The implication of the expression is that there is a tremendous level of risk in the region related to North Korean aggression and to the historical and territorial disputes between China, Japan and Korea.
It seems in some articles to be a self-evident truth that compared with the advanced nations of Europe, with their layers of regional institutions, that Northeast Asia is an immature, if not outright risky, region distinguished by weak multilateralism.
But when I had a cup of coffee with a Korean diplomat who is committed to the idea of an “Asian community,” he related to me his recent conversation with a European diplomat. The Korean diplomat asked for some advice about how to achieve the level of integration that Europe enjoys and the European caught my friend off guard by replying bluntly, “First and foremost, do not repeat the mistakes that Europe has made.”
Certainly post-war Europe made tremendous strides to overcome the divisions of the past, to create a common market and to build a new framework for cooperation in all sectors for peace and prosperity. I feel a certain pride in Europe’s achievement because my mother is from Luxembourg and my family members served in the government as that country pushed for a more complete integration to end the strife between France and Germany.
But Europe today is suffering from problems that are more serious than what we see in Northeast Asia. Its famed institutions are not able to respond in any effective manner.
For example, the recent decision by the newly elected Syriza party government in Greece to challenge the European Central Bank about debt suggests a radical dissonance in fundamental assumptions about economics between different communities. Similar splits can be found throughout Europe; it just has become the most visible in Athens.
Another crisis in Europe is the deepening military conflict in Ukraine that has left thousands dead and poses the risk of a conflict that may draw in both Russian and NATO forces. Many believe Ukraine to be one of the most dangerous developments we have witnessed in the last forty years.
Finally, Europeans have cracked down on Muslims in France, and throughout Europe, following the Jan. 8 attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Right wing parties promoting cultural purity and calling for the expulsion of foreigners have become vocal and mainstream in Germany, France and elsewhere, leading to acts of violence and intimidation against foreigners.
Although tension exists in Northeast Asia, it has not reached the level of crisis of Europe. President Park Geun-Hye and President Xi Jinping of China have limited their formal exchanges with Japan. Nevertheless, cooperation between local governments, NGOs and private industry continues, and in some cases is expanding.
I have visited several times the office of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) in Seoul and observed the work done to promote regional cooperation by the government organization, which is run jointly by the governments of Korea, China and Japan.
The secretariat is headed by Ambassador Iwatani Shigeo, an unassuming, but extremely professional diplomat. He said to me recently, “When I arrived here I was surprised to see just how wide-ranging the responsibilities of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat are. We are involved in almost all aspects of government activities, including even such issues as personnel policy.”
TCS has made tremendous progress in the implementation of the Asian Bond Markets Initiative, the signing of an investment agreement and the signing of an agreement on mutual access for trailer chassis to increase speed and efficiency in logistics.
Integration in Asia should not be a rehash of what has happened in Europe. Today, we face a global integration powered by developments in computer technology that is unprecedented in human history.
Whereas Europe came together around the coal and steel community in 1951, a plan for a common market, we must focus on the challenge of creating new standards for cyberspace and designing multilateral responses to climate change in Asia.
The TCS is not a top-heavy bureaucracy, but a small group of dedicated people on a single floor of an office building. It does not have impressive headquarters like the United Nations in New York or the European Union headquarters in Brussels. But perhaps such a low-key approach is most appropriate granted our need for an approach to global governance that mirrors the bottom-up initiatives driving innovation today. We need overlapping and reinforcing, rather than concentric and hierarchal networks, to identify and respond to the challenges of our age.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.
by Emanuel Pastreich