Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Kowtow or Cooperation in Asia?

TOKYO – When an American president’s first overseas trip following his re-election is to Asia, one can be sure that something big is afoot in the region. Indeed, Barack Obama’s decision to go first to impoverished and long-isolated Myanmar (Burma) attests to the potency of the changes underway in that country – and to US awareness of China’s efforts to shape an Asia that kowtows to its economic and foreign-policy interests.

Events at the ASEAN and East Asian leadership summits in Phnom Penh, the other key stop on Obama’s tour, confirmed this. At the ASEAN summit’s conclusion, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled his country with an iron fist for three decades, closed the meeting by proclaiming that all of the leaders had agreed not to “internationalize” sovereignty disputes over islands in the South China Sea. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, present at the summit to sign new multi-million-dollar aid agreements with Cambodia, smiled and nodded in agreement at this apparent acceptance of Chinese wishes.

Not so fast, said Filipino President Benigno S. Aquino III. No such agreement had been made. Hun Sen had mischaracterized the discussions among ASEAN’s leaders.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who was also present in Phnom Penh, agreed with Aquino. At the summit’s end, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore joined with Aquino in demanding that Hun Sen’s statement be amended. All six of these states have been pushing China to negotiate with ASEAN a multilateral process to resolve the South China Sea territorial disputes. China, dwarfing all of them, prefers bilateral talks.

As Hun Sen’s behavior demonstrates, countries that are overly dependent on Chinese aid and diplomatic backing will harmonize their policies accordingly. For two decades, Myanmar behaved likewise, until Chinese overreach, particularly the now-abandoned Myitsone dam project, revealed in full the subservient relationship that China envisioned. Indeed, China’s arrogance – 100% of the power from the proposed dam was to be exported to China – was probably the key factor in precipitating Myanmar’s democratic political transition and new openness to the world.

But Asians must not misconstrue Obama’s visit. Although the US is certainly undertaking a strategic “pivot” to Asia, America alone cannot construct a viable security structure for the region. From India to Japan, every Asian country must play its part.

There is no alternative to this approach, because China’s rise has been accompanied by massive social and economic changes – in some instances dislocation – across the entire region. Asia’s economies have, of course, become much more integrated in recent decades, particularly through production for global supply chains. But economic integration has not been matched diplomatically. Even two of the region’s great democracies, Japan and South Korea, which have nearly identical strategic interests, have allowed an old territorial dispute – itself reflecting older unresolved animosities – to block closer cooperation.

China’s prolonged – and apparently contentious – leadership transition, punctuated by the purge of Bo Xilai, suggests that its leaders’ ability to continue to manage the country’s emergence as a great power is not entirely certain. That makes the absence of a widely accepted regional structure of peace all the more dangerous.

International orders emerge either by consensus or through force. The great task for Obama, incoming Chinese President, Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the new Japanese and South Korean leaders who will come to power following elections in December, and all ASEAN members is to ensure that consensus prevails in Asia without stoking China’s greatest strategic fear – encirclement.

As everyone in Asia should recognize, whenever communist China has deemed that it faced such a threat, it has resorted to war – in Korea in 1950, India in 1962, the Soviet Union in 1969, and Vietnam in 1979. But fear of provoking China should not stop Asia’s leaders from seeking a regional security consensus, such as the proposed code of conduct for disputes in the South China Sea. Only the weakest of Asian states will submit willingly to Chinese hegemony – or, for that matter, to a Cold War-style US-led containment strategy.

Indeed, the idea that Asian countries must choose between a Chinese or American future is false. But can Asia’s fear of hegemony and China’s fear of military encirclement be reconciled?

Only a shared sense of common purpose can prevent regional militarization. Some early steps in the right direction are visible. The United States has joined several other countries in embracing a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade pact linking the Americas with Asia. Japan’s ruling party and leading opposition party are coming around to support the idea, and Obama’s invitation to China to join suggests that the US is trying to forge regional consensus where it can.

For now, however, China has other ideas. It has pressed ASEAN to establish a trade zone that would include China but exclude the US and Japan.

In any case, trade agreements, however beneficial, can do little to defuse Asia’s sovereignty disputes, and it is here – the greatest current source of regional tensions – that a shared common enterprise is not only possible, but also necessary if peace is to be preserved. After all, no government in the region – whether a democracy like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, a one-party state like China and Vietnam, or a tiny monarchy like Brunei – can acquiesce on such issues and hope to survive.

Such diplomatic realism need not lead to zero-sum outcomes, as the example of European integration demonstrates. Just as the European Coal and Steel Community preceded today’s European Union, all of Asia would benefit from embracing shared development (without any renunciation of sovereignty claims) of the rich maritime resources that, in several cases, are fueling the sovereignty disputes.

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    1. CommentedKim Kim

      Its understandable why Japan fears having to "kowtow" to China. Japan already did a big kowtow to USA via the Plaza Accord in the 1980s. More than 2 decades later, Japan still lie prostrate on the floor. For the sake of regional peace, USA should keep her lying there by signing her up for TPP :)

    2. CommentedRobert Last

      "Countries that are overly dependent on Chinese aid and diplomatic backing will harmonize their policies accordingly". The same can be said of US and its ally Japan.

      Democracy in Japan is just a veneer and a sham. Modern-day Japan is ruled by offspring of the same power elites that led Imperial Japan. The new PM's grandfather was accused of war crimes and served as PM. To refer to Japan as a great democracy is beyond laughable.

      Whatever new order that's emerging in Asia, Japan cannot play her rightful role if she refuses to confront and repudiate her colonial and war conduct. Japan, since the Meiji Restoration in 1860s, considered herself white, belonging to the West and superior to Asians (esp the Chinese and Koreans). To have to sincerely apologise and repudiate past conduct to the Chinese and Koreans is to surrender her sense of superiority and identity. Since the island disputes between Japan and Korea/China are rooted in her Imperial past, it can't be resolved until the Japanese face up to their past. Apologising to Korea & China no doubt feels like kow-towing when in fact it is not.

      Its quite funny that she bring up the EU as an example for asia. Present-day EU is at peace because Germany thoroughly apologised and repudiated her WW2 conduct. Reconciliation within Europe was then possible. Japan as a major asian power has to do her part to build a peaceful Asia by facing squarely her historical mistakes the way Germany did with Europe.

      But I'm not holding my breath for this. For eg, the new PM Abe said that Japan should retract the previious apology made for the "comfort women" issue.

    3. CommentedMeera Supramaniam

      Sorry to band together and create links like Europe? The lack of economic flexibility for Spàin and Greece is part of the reason for their problem, among other things of course. But are you seriously recommending the European way for ASEAN. Especially when you consider ASEAN policy of non intervention. You remember how they dealt over Myanmar. Agreed on the not kowtowing to china, but Asia and ASEAN needs a different recipe, a preferably one that learns from Europes mistakes and respects Asia identity and diversity.

    4. CommentedChris Chen

      I really enjoyed reading this article and pretty much agree that in Pacific Asia cooperation is the only viable way out. However, despite these beautiful rhetoric, the underlying message here is that Asian countries, especially those with territorial disputes with China, or those with "democratic" systems, should unite together to push China to kowtow. These purely interest/ideology-driven efforts would hardly persuade China. I am afraid this may not be the cooperation that can work.
      BTW, the prolonged and "contentious" leadership transition in China has actually boosted my confidence of the new leaders' managerial abilities, especially compared with their counterparts from Japan.

    5. CommentedJitendra Desai

      For genuine co operative spirit to evolve,China will have to forgo its territorial ambitions.China has [deliberately?] created such terrotrial disputes with all her neighbours to bully them.Asian nations also have to bring in pressure on China to stop self immolation by so many Tibetan monks.Waht good is economic co operation and growth in the midst of so many of such deaths.

    6. Commenteddan hitt

      I think that the facts that Koike asserts, especially those concerning any foreign wars conducted by the Chinese, can be vigorously challenged. (Can any Chinese involvement in Viet Nam possibly, even remotely, compare to ours? And why on earth do we still have troops in Korea?)

      But, in any event, charity begins at home.

      Japan, for its part, should not tolerate foreign troops on its soil so many decades after World War II. It is hard to believe a country with these troop levels is not a puppet.

      But one part Koike is absolutely right on is that these are Asian issues that should be decided, one way or another, by Asians. I would only add that the process should be done exclusively by Asians. We have our own problems to deal with, and China is not so bad. All crimes she is accused of committing we have committed one-hundred fold.

    7. Commentedsande cohen

      You say "China’s greatest strategic fear – encirclement." I think that is an idea floated by Chinese govts to give cover to their wretched murder of Tibet, control over parts of the Laotian and Burma economies, aggression in the south china sea, and retake Taiwan--which they signed away in 1876. Chinese economic development drives their use of ideology, not their mythological sense of chinese history.

    8. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

      Madam Koike makes several cogent points with acuity and accuracy. Key among these is one about the need for Asian states to identify and pursue common interests despite the diversity of their national capacities and the nature of their domestic dispensation. This, she notes, is essential to overcoming the risks flowing from increasingly febrile disputes over overlapping maritime/territorial claims. However, the disputes will, in the end, need to be resolved somehow, and one waits to hear what she might wish to suggest in that regard.

      The territorial disputes, while historical overhangs from the pre-1945 era of great-power activism across a mostly-colonised Asia, are more than that. So much emotional national pride and sense of injustice have been invested in them that positive-sum resolutions have become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to attain. And yet, without a mutually acceptable solution to these vexed questions, Asia cannot settle down to a state of pacific equilibrium. So, at the very least, visionary statesmanship of the highest order is called for. Does Ms Koike see such leadership in any of the capitals she mentions, one wonders.

      Secondly, these disputed claims appear to have acquired symbolic import far greater than their original geo-physical or historical significance. They appear to reflect a simmering struggle among regional powers to fashion a new (possibly post-hegemonic?) regional order in which their own future position appears to be somewhat fluid and uncertain. If the disputes are a reflection of transitional volatility at the systemic level, then apart from resolving their geo-spatial challenges (i.e., by drawing lines defining national boundaries through or around them), governments would also need to acknowledge the wider issue of establishing a post-1945 power-settlement across East Asia.

      Now, that poses a far greater complexity than the East- and South China Sea claims present. The fact that virtually all the regional economies are increasingly integrated in global (certainly regional) supply-chains means disruptions in one would have wider implications.

      Especially when East Asia is acquiring the status of the sole remaining engine of global growth at a time of gloom enveloping much of the OECD membership, forging contending coalitions into polarised blocs might not be the ideal approach. More imaginative courses than the current, mainly muscular-military-based, approaches favoured so far will be needed to manage inter-state disputes in a globalised world. In short, more of the same might simply not be enough. A paradigm-shift is needed.

      None of the new or newish leaderships Madam Koike refers to appears to be aware of this aspect of the challenge they face.