Much has changed in the Northeast Asian region in that space of two years. The US-centred, US-dominated world – the time of overwhelming US economic, cultural, and military weight on and in the world – fades before our eyes. Its moral credibility in particular has been eroded by aggressive wars, the practices of torture and indiscriminate killing, and the refusal to abide by the principles of international law. However, while in so many respects the US diminishes in importance, in strategic and military terms it remains paramount. The system of regional alliances linking Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines to the US as hub is anachronistic and only the absurd claim that North Korea is a major threat serves to keep it in place.
It we lift our eyes from the changes of the past two years or two decades, and fix them instead on the longue duree of centuries, the pattern is clear. The wave of Western imperialism that washed over Asia for roughly two centuries, based on Europe’s weapons and its primacy in the adoption of industrial capitalism, recedes steadily. The Asian share of global GDP, around half in 1820, is expected to recover to that same level within the next two decades. Asia today gradually resumes the global weight of pre-imperial times. A growing Asian autonomy and identity for itself is apparent. A consensus has steadily grown that security, environmental, and energy problems are shared, and ideological divisions have faded in significance.
But what shape will this new “Asia” take? While bureaucrats formulate pale versions of an expanded free trade zone or a Nato of the East, representative figures within civil society dream of an Asian community beyond the imperialism, war, and Cold War of the past 200 years and beyond the European global hegemony of the past 500, and they seek paths towards a post-capitalist order in harmony with the planet…
…The most recent community proposals have been the East Asian Summit (2005), Kevin Rudd’s (2008) for an “Asia Pacific Community” and Hatoyama Yukio’s (2009) for an “East Asia Community.” All tended to be APEC-like in their inclusiveness and vagueness, and both Japanese and Australian schemes bore the same marks as those of their former conservative forbears: a neo-liberal bent and the reservation of a special place for the US (even though Japan’s Foreign Minister initially denied that that would be the case with the Hatoyama project).
There are three problems with such proposals. First, something to which everybody belongs ceases to be a community. If the US must be part of an Asian community, must not China, Japan, and Korea also belong to NAFTA and the EU? When today Washington insists on getting “an invitation” to any “East Asian Community” (as Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell did in October), it displays its fear of challenge to its global hegemonism. Polite dissent is the appropriate response.
Secondly, good relations do not depend on shared identity, even less on dominance and subordination, but rather on difference and respect. An Asia that has a shared view of its identity and global role and can articulate it to the US would better serve global stability and peace and better share global responsibilities with the US than an Asia forever subordinate and divided. It would articulate its own interests, but that is what communities do.
Thirdly, a different approach to global economic and security concerns is necessary precisely because of the disastrous failures of US-centred neo-liberalism on the one hand and militarist hegemonism on the other. Asia needs to maintain a certain distance from the US in order to generate and project a different perspective and make a distinctive contribution to constructing a new global order…
…The civic, humanist energy that long radiated from its democratic revolution (undermining bureaucratic and statist agendas on all sides, not least to the North) pulses less vigorously. There are of course reasons for this, but it is up to Korean civil society now to regain its momentum and to commit itself again to the great tasks of community, value, and meaning. Korea has been, and I have no doubt will become once again, a pole-star pointing towards a future democratic, citizen-led Asian or East Asian community.