A sense of community elusive for East Asia

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard W. French
June 19, 2008
SHANGHAI: The ground is moving again in East Asia. Tectonic plates are not involved this time, but the rumblings are just as unmistakable, and potentially as significant.
The movement can be seen and felt in a series of steps taken here and there in the region. Each might seem modest, even tiny, for some, but assessing them that way would be to miss the bigger picture.
The first thing that must be said about East Asia is that for all of its economic achievements, it lags woefully behind much of the rest of the world in important ways.
While the Europeans have found a way to discard their suspicions and hatreds and forge a growing community, this region is stuck with problems that date from World War II and the Korean conflict.
To be blunt, there is no community. Each of the major countries – China, Japan and South Korea – clings to its own vision of the future, to its own self-serving version of history, and relates to the outside world as a sole actor, and almost never in terms of regional interests or priorities.
It is against that uninspiring backdrop that one must view the sort of news this week about Japan and China coming to terms over exploitation of disputed offshore gas fields located in the East China Sea.
One says sort of news because of the timid way this development has been presented. Japanese officials began hinting at an agreement early in the week, and sure enough by Wednesday, two senior officials could be seen in a press conference, smiling as they stood in front of a large map.
The problem was that the happy men were both Japanese ministers hailing the breakthrough. So far, no Chinese official has done so, and Beijing has gone out of its way to play down the agreement, even muddying the waters over its substance.
“I would like to reiterate that China’s consistent position and stance on the East China Sea issue have remained unchanged,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, told the press in Beijing the same day. “Chunxiao Oil and Gas Field falls completely within China’s sovereignty rights, and has nothing to do with joint development.”
There has indeed been an agreement. What the divergent announcements amount to is the squeak of a very rusty wheel: the wheel of Chinese-Japanese cooperation.
Having played Japan as the boogeyman for so long, Beijing now looks almost ludicrously timid. This is for fear of appearing to have made any concessions, fear of a photo-op with Japan, and most of all, fear of its own public, especially what The China Youth Daily recently called the “Online Red Guards.”
These are the Internet-based nationalist rabble-rousers who rail at every imagined slight or perceived signal of Chinese weakness, one of whom promptly denounced the agreement as “the typical behavior of those who sell out the country,” and called for them to sent before a firing squad.
Beijing’s dilemma inspires little sympathy. The understanding with Japan, by contrast, should be saluted and encouraged. Taken together with the recent agreements between Beijing and Taipei over travel, the oil field diplomacy roughly amounts to the first few turns of a Rubik’s Cube in a region that will require many, many more turns in order to bring its diplomatic and geopolitical realities in line with its economic achievement.
All credit to Beijing for having found the political will and courage to come this far, and one hopes for much bigger steps ahead. Defusing relations with Taiwan and achieving a long overdue genuine normalization with Japan would each be rich in payoffs for Beijing and for the world.
Taiwan’s newly elected leader, Ma Ying-jeou, has helped make this clear, putting flesh on his vision of accelerated economic cooperation and political détente with Beijing in an interview this week with the International Herald Tribune.
It is hard to imagine anything doing more to validate China’s claim to becoming a new kind of power, a peace-minded nation, than cutting back on the forces arrayed against Taiwan in southern China, and committing to a political and economic engagement with its neighbor that acknowledges the importance of Taiwanese opinion.
In recent months, China’s leaders have taken real steps forward with Japan, with both Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao visiting, and agreeing to regular high level exchanges.
Bigger steps are still needed, though.
China has an opportunity to establish a relationship of real trust and confidence that would have far-reaching consequences. Close working ties would ease the natural insecurities of the Japanese and others in this region as China rises, and could eventually even bring dramatic adjustments in America’s hitherto central role in the region’s security.
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