To understand Asia, clicking on the BBC’s website used to be sufficient. Until a few years ago—certainly until the start of the financial crisis—the continent seemed to be struck by bipolarity. News from the Indian subcontinent drew from politics and security; news from the Far East focused primarily on economics and society. The headlines were eloquent and unidirectional: tension in Kashmir, the atomic quarrel between India and Pakistan, assaults, guerilla warfare in Nepal, civil war in Sri Lanka, Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, and even a coup in the Maldives. Names and dates could change, but the tone of the information never varied. Conversely, East Asia reflected growth, stability, and the diffusion of well-being. Both the industrialized Northeast (China, Japan, and South Korea), as well as the 10 ASEAN countries sketched history without resorting to newspapers. Economists rediscovered humor reading the news: 16 subway lines in Beijing, Singapore has the most billionaires in the world, the power of South Korean chaebols, Vietnam takes off, prosperity in Malaysia, and the defeat of poverty in Indonesia. Schools, dams, homes, and airports were built. GDPs soared, and even when they stagnated like in Japan, it didn’t dent the prosperity and democracy. East Asia grew internally and dragged along the global recovery; it acquired strength and autonomy.
Now, the situation between the two different Asias has leveled, albeit it with heavy tensions. Disputes in the Pacific are growing instead of the economies in the Indian Ocean. The same click on the BBC’s website is eloquent: Chinese factories in Ho Chi Minh city were attacked, war ships dispatched to archipelagos, China imposes a no-fly zone over the islands contested with Japan, the US military has returned to naval bases in the Philippines after being kicked out, Seoul is squaring off against Japan, Thailand is under military control, and the steady stream of attacks is continuing in Xinjiang, China’s Turkic and Muslim region. It used to be the literary suggestion of the Silk Road, now it’s studded with hydrocarbons. As an indecipherable consequence, growth has plateaued and tensions are increasing without a clear cause and effect. At the same time, the societies are changing, too: China is the biggest luxury goods market, Indonesia is a champion of democracy, social networks are shaping public opinion, and the consumption of wine and cheese is skyrocketing. Maybe things aren’t what they used to be in the East, its exotic allure has given way to smokestacks. What underlies the warning signs of war? Why is China only now staking its claim over the handful of islands administered by Japan? Is it conceivable that Vietnam might forget its war and align itself with the US against Beijing? What does China have to gain by antagonizing Southeast Asia? Only Cambodia has ceded to Beijing, not forgetting their alliance during the times of Pol Pot and the historic rivalry with its more powerful neighbor, Vietnam. There’s also the sharp intensification of tensions between Muslim minorities and Buddhists in countries like Thailand and Myanmar.
The changes are due to the intersection of many factors, in sync with Obama’s teachings that “the world is a complicated matter.” It is, in any case, possible to retrace two of the most important points: the crisis of “developmentism” and the end of the Pax Americana. Since the end of the Second World War, the Pacific was essentially an immense US lake. Japan became an ally quickly and a valuable military outpost during the Cold War as well as the atrocious conflict in Korea. The same fate befell the governments of Seoul, Taipei, Jakarta, and Bangkok. The ambition was simple and expensive: contain the expansion of China and the Soviet Union, bastions of global communism. While Europe rebuilt and pacified, Asia continued to fight in wars, from Vietnam’s independence to the conflicts in the Philippine jungles, and the division of Korea to the massive repression in Indonesia. At the climax of tensions, airplanes ploughed the seas and arsenals were filled. Suddenly, the Soviet Union crumbled in 1989, China opened to the west, and Vietnam was recognized, giving strength to the pacification. The decline of ideological diversity and the end of political danger channeled governmental attention in a single direction: toward the commitment to strengthen the economy to defeat underdevelopment, and to redeem society. Divided by rancor but cemented by a communal mindset, the continent achieved a series of successes. It started with Japan, followed by the Asian Tigers, and then China joined. Every case was a variation on capitalism despite the eccentricity of each single situation.
The political sphere conceded a revocable delegate to the economy. It was assigned the task of creating wealth, to secure consensus through prosperity, and to manage new and complex situations. The bureaucrats and party leaders were not adept at managing businesses and launching them into international competition. Both in authoritarian China and in paternalistic countries, politics guaranteed stability, the protection of property, and multinationals’ investments. East Asia has been globalization’s lead protagonist. The growth in GDPs, access to consumables, the reduction of illiteracy, improved quality of life, and all the broken records prove it. Its success was epochal, but its foundations are still fragile. In fact, the government put a gag on history; they didn’t confront it. An interminable postwar period didn’t heal wounds and resentment. Chinese and Korean victims believe Japan did not do enough to apologize for the suffering it inflicted even though it has been generous with aid for its neighbors. Border disputes are resurfacing while military spending is increasing everywhere. Ethnic and religious tensions deflagrate and fuel nationalism. Success didn’t create solidarity; conversely, it provided the strength to reignite animosities. Europe did a lot for peace; Willy Brandt knelt in Warsaw and Jerusalem. No analogous event occurred in Asia. The three giants in the Northeast crossed paths politically. Despite Beijing’s protection of Pyongyang, Seoul hasn’t hesitated to line up against Tokyo over the islands contested between China and Japan. Evidently the brutal memory of the Japanese occupation 100 years ago is stronger than the support China provided for North Korea during their civil war. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN is a primarily commercial association, without mandatory constraints and far from the European Union’s model.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that dormant tensions are exploding right now. Now, Asia has the muscles to instill fear and reverence. It’s inevitable that the most important conflict will occur between China and the US. Beijing has laid claim to the islands in the South China Sea, located within the theoretical nine-dash line. All of the bordering nations contest this claim. The ironic exception—Taiwan—confirms that nationalism is the most incisive motive underlying the tensions. Despite the rivalry between Taipei and Beijing being the mother of all conflicts, the two sides of the straight haven’t hesitated to claim that the islands belong to the Great Mother China. The nationalist genesis goes beyond economic interests, the availability of offshore gas, and the control of oil pipelines. In this complex and worrisome picture, Southeast Asian counties are facing a dangerous dilemma: they fear China’s expansionism, but they need it economically. They’re turning to the United States for security without irritating the Middle Kingdom. They are out of their league, and will be playing a difficult game if peace is postponed and politics abdicate in favor of GDP growth.
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