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East Asia's unfinished history

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East Asia has certainly been a globalization winner.  Export-led development has created prosperity and massively reduced poverty.  But has it created the basis for a more stable and secure region in a similar way to Europe's development?  Or has it opened up old wounds which still need to be healed? 


These are some of the issues that former Australian prime minister Paul Keating took up in his speech to the Evatt Foundation in August 2007, and which he further developed in an interview with "NewMatilda.com".

Keating starts by recalling an occasion when he was Australia's finance minister some 20 years ago, and when his Japanese counterpart, Kiichi Miyazawa, asked him whether "the Chinese would attack us".  This symbolised the complete lack of mutual understanding and contact between the two great Asian nations.

For Keating, the most dangerous part of the world is North Asia, with the triangle of unresolved tensions between China and Japan, and the Korean peninsular.  The antipathy between China and Japan has only intensified, especially among today's younger generations, since the end of second world war in tandem with the rapid development of China.  

The balance of power in the region is also shifting as China is a rising state, while Japan is a declining one due to its shrinking population.  There is now a veritable arms race on either side of the Sea of Japan, not to mention the dangerous games played by North Korea.  The region is potentially a much dangerous than the Middle East for example.

Fundamentally, Keating is most concerned that sufficient efforts are not made through APEC to tackle these tough strategic issues.  He yearns for the days of big ideas and pro-Asian diplomacy when he was prime minister (since his speech, the Australian public has replaced its right wing prime minister, John Howard, with the very pro-Asian prime minister Kevin Rudd).

But Keating is not just a frustrated former prime minister.  The very same issues of potential instability in Asia have also been taken up recently by the Japan expert and former Economist editor, Bill Emmott, in his book entitled "Rivals: How the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade". 

An indication of the state of affairs can be guaged from the following comment by Japanese prime minister Taro Aso to Emmott: "China and India have hated each other for a thousand years.  Why should things be different now?". 

At the end of the Cold War Francis Fukuyama wrote an article entitled the End of History.  Globalization and rapid economic development in East Asia have not seen the end of history, but rather the unfreezing of an unfinished history which hopefully can be played out peacefully. 

At the same, a new history is developing as economic and political power is shifting to China and India, while the Japanese government has become the least effective in the region.  For Keating, the Chinese government is the competent government in the world, as evidenced by its management of the country's very complex situation.  But the greatest risk that we face from China would come from internal threats to its own stability.    

Asians often take great pride in their informal, polite diplomacy, a lot of which is structured around ASEAN, rather than the regions big players.  But a peaceful future for Asia will require that both Japan and China accomodate each other, and learn to live and work together. 

This will be particularly challenging as China progressively becomes the dominant power in the region, but a "poor power" as the average standard of living remains well below Japan's for many decades.  It is all the more challenging because it is unclear for how long the US security blanket for its Japanese and Korean allies can remain in its current form.  It will have to be re-balanced at some point taking account of the economic security blanket that the US receives from China from purchases of government bonds, and also the fact that the US is overstretched in Iraq, Afganistan and Pakistan.  

Some 150 years ago, Europe was unable to accomodate a rising Germany.  It then took exhaustion from two world wars, a cold war and US leadership to create a Europe which is both peaceful and prosperous, safe and secure.  This is not the model that East Asia should follow. 


"Australia's biggest seat at its biggest table".  Speech by Paul Keating, Evatt Foundation, 23 August, 2007 -- http://evatt.org.au

Paul Keating on China, the US and the End of Statecraft, New Matilda -- http://newmatilda.com/print/2461

Rivals: How the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade, by Bill Emmott, Allen Lane/Penguin, April 2008 -- www.billemmott.com      

"The End of History?" by Francis Fukuyama -- www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm