A new consensus for Asia?

by Xingxing on Wednesday, 12 December 2007 Comments
1. When you were studying in the United States in the early 1970’s, did you think of an economically developed Asia, combining its efforts to construct a union, as a possible concept?

The United States was standing out as the superpower in the international scene at the time I was studying in New York. The social sciences field was looking for other possibilities of development in other parts of the world, and began to pay attention to Asia. The ‘Asian miracle’, first initiated by Japan, and followed by the economic took off of the Four Little Dragons, (Taiwan, Hong-Kong, Singapore and South Korea), showed some signs of hope for a further global development in the rest of Asia. In the 1960’s in the West, Confucianism was considered to be a terrible thing, preventing all ethnic Chinese societies to develop capitalism and democracy. But looking at the example of Taiwan, it is now a maturing capitalist economy and it also has a dynamic democracy. The so called Chinese-Confucian culture is still here, but the relations between culture and development should not be considered as a obstacle cause-effect factor. I began to teach ‘Sociology of Development’ 1980, 27 years ago and started to think about ‘why Asia could develop’. Asia has been growing ever since, but Asian countries as a whole have not developed into any form of regional unity or union. In other words, Economic development alone could not bring about regional political integration. The Asia Pacific Cooperation (APEC) is indeed a formal economic cooperation organization regrouping Asian countries, but it is in no way a union.

2. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has significantly increased economic ties in South East Asia. The construction of a more united Asia would also include countries politically and economically diverse, as Japan, Korea or India. On which ground do you think these countries can work on?

Asian countries need to shift their way of thinking from a bilateral to a multi-lateral cooperation. ASEAN has been established in Southeast Asia for forty years, but its insistence on “non-interventionism” is an obstacle to deal with any domestic conflicts or violation; for example the current crisis in Myanmar. I don’t think Asian countries could establish a supra-national institution unless there is more common understanding within Asia. From a social scientist perspective, I have not seen a call for Asian unity yet.
A Union needs a strong leadership which can gain trust from the other member countries. In Asia three countries could potentially play such role: Japan, China and India. But none of the three has established necessary international credibility to lead the task. Even within ASEAN no such strong and trust-worthy leadership is found. Some ASEAN leaders even are running authoritarian regimes in their home countries, but ASEAN could not do anything about it. At present, Asian countries have to establish necessary agreement as the Dutch, the French and the German had done at the beginning of the conception of the European Union. ASEAN leaders need to begin their efforts to consolidate their views on the issue. For the last ten to fifteen years ago, Northeast Asian countries have been cooperating more and more with each other, but mostly in bilateral ties. So, we can clearly note that Asian countries still need more time to learn, to understand and to work together, then can a possible regional integration be expected.

3. Does the balance between the main powers in Asia gives a possibility to form the basis of a Union, or to see growing the sense of Asian Unity?

The construction of an Asian Union requires many pre-conditions. China, India and Japan are three big powers in Asia, but each of them has reason to be suspicious to lead the “unionization”. Also, they may fight each other. They need to review their attitude and their influence on other countries and they need to learn to trust more each other. Japanese carry the historical burden of the Second World War and Southeast Asians can hardly trust them, and Koreans will never forgive them if they do not go over this war stigma. China will use the anti-Japanese sentiment for its political game too. But the “rise of China” also caused other Asians to worry about the unpeaceful side of China’s rise. ASEAN states remain divided because they fail to trust each other. East Asians also lack of communication with South Asia. Moreover, Pakistan and Sri Lanka do not have a very good relationship with their neighbor country: India.
I only see a possibility for Asian unity if we start to share understanding with each other. Northeast Asia needs to know more about Southeast Asia, India needs to know more about the rest of Asia, Buddhists need to learn more about Muslims, and vice-versa. We certainly need to watch China if it really can behave well. In year 2008, China will try very hard to act for the Olympic. It will be a useful test for the rest of the world to see how China really is after the Olympic.

4. More and more Asians migrate from poor Asian countries to strong Asian economies. For instance, South Koreans see the affluence of Chinese and Vietnamese workers or wives, and are pushed to open up their relatively closed culture. Do you think these movements are a way to further link Asians together?

I think intra-regional Asian migration can increase Asian’s collective awareness and identity. Each country can experience it by having different cultures on its land. Trying to understand them is a necessary first step into the process of “feeling Asian”.
For instance, migrant workers and international marriage couples represent almost 700,000 people in Taiwan, a larger population than the aborigines. They form the 5th ethnic group, the 5th culture of the country. Korea accepts more and more foreign spouses and workers. Japan also has many Southeast Asian migrants, but experience difficulties to open up to these alien cultures. Thailand also hires many Burmese too. These examples show a big regional migration. In this sense, each Asian country becomes more and more multi cultural. However, it remains a relatively new phenomenon and Asia just began to witness its repercussions on the society. Asians also need to go beyond their prejudices and correct their Asian inferior complex to the West. Indeed, they tend to often to look up at the Caucasian spouses and despise the Southeast Asian spouses in their countries.

5. Which role do you think the Asian youth can play in building up a more united Asia dynamic? Which median could help them to raise their awareness of being Asian, and seeing ties between the Asian cultures?

Young Asians are increasingly curious about other Asians; they are also interested to know more about others in Asia. From a cultural approach, their interactions will further develop connections linking them together. Nowadays, they have more chances than ever to know more about each other. For the youths, pop culture is the median which can bring different cultures together. MTV’s, dramas, newspapers articles, and traveling are as many opportunities for them to increase common understanding and make Asians think they can share something together. In Taiwan for example, there is currently a craze for watching Korean soap operas and listening to Japanese songs. An example of fusion between Northeast and Southeast Asian cultures in Taiwan can also be experienced in the diverse styles of hot springs: Japanese hot spring hotel resorts, Indonesian or Thailand SPA. Daily life make them think more about what to be Asian really means, and open their mind. I think, among the youths, the spirit of sharing and knowing more is there, but it does not mean they want to joint together in one union. By talking, meeting more Asians, they will increase common understanding and in the future, they might think of constructing an unity could be desirable.

6. This December 2007, along with a Hong Kong scholar, you are going to publish a paper untitled “The Experiences of Cultural Globalizations in Asia-Pacific” in the ‘Japanese Journal of Political Sciences’. One part of the study focused on ‘Feeling global: national/transnational identity’ in Asia. Did this case study show that Asians have a sense of belonging to Asia?

When talking about the factors making possible or not the construction of an Asian Union, we will face a lot of difficulties for such formation. However, if you think about the increasing Asian identity, you still can see some positive signs in the making. Indeed, Asians have more and more a sense of belonging to Asia. The case study examines the situation in seven Asian countries in year 2006: China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. We aim at measuring national and transnational identities and the respondents were asked about their sense of identification with one’s nationality and with transnational groups, among which their sense of broader Asian identity.
Vietnamese, with the highest percentage of 87.2% are identifying themselves the most with Asia. So, in Vietnam today, we observe the strongest sense of Asian identity Taiwanese, at 60.6% also show a very high level of identity with Asia. Situated geographically at the junction between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, the people living on this island have a dual Asian identity. In comparison, only 21.3% of the Japanese and 32.0% of the South Koreans had a positive response to the sense of belonging to Asia. These low percentages, especially in the case of Japan, show their level of “national protectionism” towards other Asian cultures.
The paper may not represent for whole Asia, as the countries selected have been influenced by Confucianism. If you would conduct a similar survey among Southeast Asian countries, I guess the people there will have pretty high Southeast Asian regional identity. But I am not sure if Southeast Asian also has higher Asian identity as a whole.

7. Do you think the national policies of the Asian countries have the task, through education for instance, to raise the young Asian population’s awareness that, as Europeans, they could share more than economic ties with other Asian countries?
I think that to provide young Asians more education of their Asian neighbors is a basic need. Because I do not see, in the short term, how politicians can come to an agreement on the Asian Unity issue, and even capitalists do not promote that idea either. I think it is up to the NGOs, the cultural groups and the intellectuals to start thinking of such idea. Young people can also join NGOs, environmental groups, for instance, which already have international networks. Young Asians should also pay more attention to their Asian cousins. In Taiwan, if young people like to watch Vietnamese movies, why not trying to interact with Vietnamese who are already here? Asian youth can also join peace movements; can be more curious towards religious communication, interfaith dialogue. Ethnically, culturally, religiously, Asia is a very rich region. Therefore, it may take more time for Asians to understand each other. This complexity can be an obstacle to establish a political-economic Union, while it makes the whole process more interesting.


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