Posted : 2010-09-20 19:02
Updated : 2010-09-20 19:02

Pragmatism should triumph over ideology in Asia

This is the fourth in a five-part series exploring how best to realize an East Asian community of reconciliation and communication in the 21st century. — ED.

By Andrew L. Oros

A history of the 21st century will likely begin with the economic milestone of two Asian countries (Japan and China) becoming the second and third largest economies in the world, which occurred in 2007 when China surpassed Germany to become the world’s third largest economy.

The writer of this history will likely associate this milestone with the generations of peace the region has benefitted from, in sharp contrast to most other regions of the world which continue to suffer from inter-state and civil wars, and the greatly increased interactions among the people, businesses, and governments of the states in the region ― the de facto regionalization of Northeast Asia.

This may not be the current image many East Asians hold, given the daily catalogue of suspicion, recriminations, and perceptions of threat one reads in the media of any state in Northeast Asia. But these latter issues are largely challenges of the 20th century.

In the 21st century, new challenges already are apparent ― including how to manage a historical shift of economic and political power towards East Asia, how to allocate the world’s limited resources more fairly and efficiently, and how to provide governance in a global commons at time of relative decline of the United States.

It is imperative that the people and the leaders of the states of Northeast Asia ― in particular China, Japan, and South Korea ― focus on contributing to this new history of the 21st century, rather than dwelling on issues of the 20th century.

Addressing these new challenges ― “history in the making” ― was on full display at the fourth annual “Asian Davos” meeting of the World Economic Forum in Tianjin last week. In that forum, creative thinkers and a number of so-called “next generation” leaders worked across national boundaries to devise solutions to pressing regional and global problems outside of rigid government-led dialogues.

There I witnessed frank exchanges among Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans based on practical rather than ideological imperatives. It was an encouraging sight, particularly since at the same time elsewhere in Tianjin a school that enrolled many Japanese students was being pelted with stones by local Chinese angry about a diplomatic dispute.

Government officials could learn from the pragmatism of the “new champions” of Asian Davos and should work to avoid pandering to the worst instincts of their citizens evident in internet chat rooms, polarized media, and sporadic violent demonstrations. The right side of history is about creating and building, not smashing and deriding.

The unprecedented number of opportunities for the region’s leaders to meet in person provides one promising avenue toward cooperation in this new century. This autumn alone, government leaders will meet in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, at the ASEM annual meeting in Brussels, and at the APEC annual meeting in Yokohama, in addition to engaging in bilateral “shuttle diplomacy.”

This is a remarkable change in global governance considering that the heads of state of China, Japan, and the United States met together for the first time in history less than twenty years ago, at the first meeting of APEC.

The United States has long been an essential ― if controversial ― contributor to community building in East Asia. It will continue to be in the 21st century, but the other major states of the region must also become more responsible for creating harmonious relations in the region as US relative power declines vis-à-vis East Asia’s economic and political power.

Peaceful and cooperative relations between China and Japan in particular are essential for the construction of a cooperative Northeast Asian community in the 21st century.

Happily, there are positive signs that the two states will work past their many long-standing differences and become leaders in the world-wide challenge of reconciliation after extended conflict. Still, many potential stumbling blocks lay on the horizon, as seen in the most recent flare-up related to the territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea that separates China and Japan.

The deepening of trade relations between the two states, with China now Japan’s largest trading partner and Japan China’s number two, provides one avenue for expanded cooperation. The growth in economic exchange has led to deepening governmental ties as both sides seek to address a wide range of regulatory issues.

It also has led to burgeoning trilateral cooperation among China, Japan, and South Korea as the three states face many of the same cooperative challenges. In the medium term, such interaction may even lead to a free trade area in Northeast Asia, building on China-ROK negotiations currently underway.

Working together fosters “habits of cooperation” and creates diverse and multiple channels to use to weather the times of tensions that are bound to arise in any deep relationship. After all, a cooperative relationship does not mean that conflict does not arise.

Rather, in the context of friendly relationships, conflict is managed with a cooperative spirit that is based on a mutual recognition of the benefits of the broader relationship.

The 21st century already has witnessed several cases of business leaders in Northeast Asia pressuring the political leadership to tone down the rhetoric of conflict when it began to endanger the positive economic climate.

Attention to economic interaction alone, however, will not create a resilient community, nor will it lead to reconciliation over past wrongs. East Asia continues to be a region plagued by deep security concerns, including directly between China and Japan.

Here too there have been some positive signs in improving relations. For example, joint efforts to resolve issues related to the Pacific War have deepened, such as the dismantlement of Japanese wartime-era chemical weapons in China that began recently.

The fact that sixty-five years have now passed since Japan’s military surrender does not mean that issues of the past should be forgotten, but it is time for such practical residual issues to draw to a close in order to open space for a new era of cooperative efforts.

The burden and the opportunity to create a more cooperative Northeast Asian community for the 21st century rests not just with government leaders but with business leaders and average citizens. The path forward should build on three areas where progress already has been made.

First, the region should deepen further the cooperative expansion of economic ties, including mutual direct investment and promotion of people-to-people exchanges through practical interactions such as joint investment schemes, cooperative technology development and implementation, and tourism.

In this context, leaders in the region should work together to create more cooperative multilateral relations such as China-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation, which may perhaps extend to a large free trade area in its next steps.

Second, the governments of China, Japan, and the United States in particular should re-double their efforts to develop mechanisms for more cooperative security relationships. This should include both traditional “confidence building” and conflict management efforts such as military officer exchanges, port visits, and crisis hot lines as well as new initiatives to work together in areas of common concern.

In this latter area, so-called “new security” concerns such as joint humanitarian relief efforts and disaster response provide opportunities.

The surprise eruption of the Sinabung Volcano in Indonesia is a stark reminder of the threat of natural disasters the entire region faces. Why not use this common concern to work together for a future coordinated response to develop new habits of cooperation in the security realm?

At the same time, more coordinated action should be sought on traditional security concerns such as counter-terrorism, anti-piracy, and counter-proliferation. Already the naval forces of China, Japan, and the United States are communicating with each other in their anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden; why not formalize such cooperation in anticipation of extending it to other areas such as coordinated patrol of vital sea lanes?

Third, together with a forward-looking focus on the practical challenges of the 21st century, continued efforts to craft a more accurate and regionally sensitive history of the 20th century should also be continued, realizing that such a history will always be a work in progress.

There will never be full agreement on the history of the 20th century, in East Asia or anywhere else. We should not fool ourselves into thinking there could be if we just showed more “cooperative spirit.” Nor should we let disagreements about history cast a long shadow over the future, particularly future cooperative possibilities.

In the United States, a movement to provide reparations to the ancestors of enslaved African-Americans continues nearly 150 years after the abolition of the institution of slavery in that country; yet, at the same time, an African-American has been elected President and, more broadly, racial reconciliation continues.

The analogy is not perfect, but there is a useful message to Northeast Asia in that the history of the United States ― both the recent and distant past ― has been re-imagined repeatedly as progress on social issues has been made. The same should be expected in East Asia.

We cannot wait for “past” history to be resolved before making history ― hopefully a history of a cooperative 21st century for Northeast Asia underpinned by a deep and multi-faceted China-Japan relationship that moves beyond the current tensions that steal the headlines away from the notable progress of recent years.

Andrew L. Oros is an associate professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, USA. He is the author of Normalizing Japan: Politics, Identity, and the Evolution of Security Practice (Stanford University Press, 2008) and co-author of Global Security Watch: Japan (Praeger Press, 2010). He currently is researching prospects for China-Japan-US security cooperation under a Japan Foundation Abe Fellowship based at Peking and Keio Universities. Oros can be reached at
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