East Asia: An ideal community

Fei-Ling Wang – The International Herald Tribune

Saturday, November 5, 2005
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SEOUL.
Divided yet booming, East Asia is experiencing an epic reconfiguration.
Increasingly, a new organization of East Asian countries is seen as the best way
to manage the profound social and economic changes sweeping the region.
To its proponents, an East Asian Community, created in the mold of the European
Union, promises a great uplift of the region — a strong mechanism for stability
and for constraining and transforming China. By promoting an East Asian
identity, an EAC would help to shift paradigms, heal old wounds and resolve
explosive disputes like the Taiwan issue and the Korean division.
Championed by many in Japan, South Korea and especially the 40 year-old
Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the EAC idea has begun to arouse
significant enthusiasm in China and even Australia and India. It commonly refers
to an entity with varying degrees of economic, cultural, political and security
cooperation among East and Southeast Asian nations and perhaps Oceania too.
An EAC is both desirable and feasible for many reasons. The people of East Asia
share much in common: a cultural heritage featuring Confucian ideology and a
legalist political tradition; the use of Chinese characters; and the belief in
Chinese medicine and feng shui.
Furthermore, the whole region has had record-shattering economic booms and
stronger economic ties have resulted. Today, a ”Made in East Asia” label would
better describe the true origin and contents of most ”Made in China” goods.
Yet an East Asia Community is still an ideal without a road map. The
goal is complicated by the great differences between nations of the
region: We see some of the richest, most open and highly-advanced
democracies coexisting with some of the poorest, most isolated and most backward
societies.
Disagreements about the nature and scope of an EAC also exist. Tokyo, which
often considers itself more Western than Asian, has been mainly interested in
economic cooperation, while many in Seoul are justifiably more concerned about
security and peace. Many in Beijing tend to view an EAC as a useful way to fend
off America’s hegemonic power. Support from the United States for an EAC is at
best uncertain.
And unlike Western Europeans in the 1950s, the East Asians have no common enemy,
nor a common ally, to bind them. There is no common arrangement, like NATO, to
address the complex security problems in the region. While the Western Europeans
had a dwindled sense of nationalism 50 years ago, after the devastation of two
world wars, East Asians in all corners are experiencing a rapid surge in
conflicting nationalisms. There seems to be a strong desire for settling scores.
Lack of leadership is another critical problem. Asean lacks the
necessary weight and internal cohesion. A united East Asia led by Japan, the
most developed nation in the region, often automatically rekindles the terrible
memory of Imperial Japan’s brutal effort to create a Greater East Asia 60 years
ago. Japan’s frustrating experience of seeking a permanent seat on the UN
Security Council shows how hard it is for Tokyo to assume real political
leadership without a sea change in Japan to shed its unrepentant, macho mask.
Chinese leadership, given Beijing’s political system and the great uncertainty
about its stability and intentions, is simply too frightening for too many. The
chance for the two giants, China and Japan, to join hands for the founding of an
EAC seems slimmer every day.
But concerted efforts could still make a difference. The similarly
endowed East Asian Tigers — South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan —
could first form a union starting with narrow cooperation and integration in
areas like energy or technology, to serve as the core of a possible EAC
snowball, much like the 1948 Benelux Union by Belgium, the Netherlands and
Luxembourg (assuming, of course, Beijing somehow miraculously allows such
a union). In just four years, the Benelux Union grew into the European Coal and
Steel Community that brought France and West Germany together. The rest is EU
history.
It took 50 years for the EU to expand so much that it now seems to be suffering
serious indigestion. East Asians may take a longer time to just bring their
region peacefully together as equal partners. An East Asian ”Four Tigers
Union,” small and however unlikely it may seem, may help to create an EAC and
rewrite the history of East Asia and beyond.
***
Fei – Ling Wang is professor of international affairs at the Georgia
Institute of Technology and international affairs fellow of the Council on
Foreign Relations.

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