Much more than China

01.01.08 Publication:

“Asia is one.” When the Beijing Olympics are transfixing the world, it will seem as if that sentence is wrong and that Asia is simply China. Other countries will try to draw your eyes away from the Middle Kingdom to their own domestic events: to India, if its Congress party-led government is forced to hold an early general election; or to Japan, if the hands of the Liberal Democrats’ new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, turn out to be not quite as safe as was assumed when he was chosen in September to clear up the shambles left behind by Shinzo Abe and if he too is forced to go early to the polls. Asia’s serial trouble-maker, Kim Jong-Il, always has the potential to grab attention to himself and to North Korea, though this time he may do so by revealing his preferred successor (Kim will turn 66) rather than by exploding a nuclear device. Yet while these and other individual countries jostle for the spotlight, bear those first three words in mind: “Asia is one”.

They represent a bigger, more enduring trend than all those single-country events, important though those will all be. It is that the great powers of the region are coming to look at it in the way cartographers do, as a single space, whether for military strategy, diplomacy or economic relations, stretching from Iran in the west to Japan in the east, a space in which India is as much an Asian actor as are China, Singapore, Thailand or Japan, and in which the commercial and political interests of the big powers range across the whole continent.

This has never happened before, at least not in modern times. That is not for want of dreaming. “Asia is one” was the opening sentence of a book published 104 years ago by a Japanese art historian called Kakuzo Okakura, entitled “Ideals of the East”. He caused a stir at the time, as a scholar from the first Asian country to modernise successfully, one that was about to be the first to defeat a European power, Russia, in war. Okakura’s ideas influenced Asia’s first Nobel literature laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, a poet from Bengal, who in turn even influenced Sun Yat-Sen, the father of the Chinese republic that replaced its Qing emperors in 1911. They were all, in their different ways, pan-Asianists, seeking unity among Chinese, Indians, Japanese and others to forge a single idea of Asia, in a spirit of rejection of the European colonialists.

It didn’t happen. Asians proved to be as divided from one another as they were united in the desire to be rid of the Europeans. Once the imperialists left, they turned in on themselves or into their local neighbourhoods, whether as South Asia, North-East Asia, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or merely Indochina. But that is now changing. Pan-Asian thinking is on its way back—for benign reasons and for less friendly ones.

One symbol of that change will come in February when Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s best-known diplomat of recent decades and now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, will publish a book called “The New Asian Hemisphere”. This will be notable because during the 1990s Mr Mahbubani, and the Minister Mentor for whom his school is named, were prime advocates of a more limited idea of “Asian values”, one with a strictly East Asian focus and an authoritarian view of human rights. The new Asia, however, represents a much larger political and economic space, connecting together the world’s largest democracy, India, and its largest dictatorship, China.

However, such unity is also bringing suspicion and rivalry. Now that India is achieving rapid economic growth and increasing its trade, and that China is extending its interests and influence deep into and across the Indian Ocean in search of African and West Asian resources to fuel its growth, Asia’s two aspirant great powers are becoming more conscious of each others’ breath on their necks. George Bush’s civil nuclear deal with India, signed in 2005 but uncertainly awaiting implementation in 2008, was an attempt to exploit that inherent rivalry by strengthening India to balance China. Japan’s security alliance with Australia in 2007 was another recognition of this change, as were the four-way military exercises conducted by Japan, America, India and Australia in September. In 2008 that Japan will confirm that it is providing much of the finance for an ambitious industrial and transport project connecting Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, to further shore up its links across the hemisphere to India.

Now that they are thinking on this larger, continent-wide scale, Asia’s great powers are seeking to stress their friendships with one another as well as preparing for an adversarial power game. They may be inherent rivals, but they also know that conflict would be a disaster and that their rivalry needs to be managed rather than being allowed to escalate. So when the oddly named East Asia Summit holds its fourth annual meeting in December 2008, pulling together countries as far apart as India, China, Japan and New Zealand, it will be more serious and substantive than in previous years. Asia is one—for good and for ill.