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Foreign Policy

Possibilities for a Collective East Asian Identity

Feb 28, 2020

Li Keqiang.jpg

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on Dec. 24, 2019.

East Asia as a region, despite the cultural traits its countries share with one another, their geographical proximity and their common strategic interests, is fraught by conflicts that form barriers to the establishment of stable, friendly relations and the genesis of a common non-Western identity. Reflecting an ideal, identity plays a vital role in creating bonds in an increasingly diverse world. Concepts of national identity have successfully linked people of many backgrounds within the notion of a “citizen” belonging to a particular territorially bounded political community.

The framing of a collective identity that crosses national boundaries and encompasses citizens of multiple nation-states, is gaining attention worldwide as a way to build on national identities and unite entire regions under a common identity.

This paper argues that a collective identity can serve as an important pillar, particularly within the conflict-laden East Asian political climate, tying the whole community under the banner of a single Asian framework to generate a sense of togetherness, belonging and mutual benefit.

Collective identity is formulated on the basis of a group consciousness that embraces common goals, actions, attributes and emotional self-recognition. Such an identity is visible in international relations — for example, through regionalism or alliances that are formed not just on material premises but also on shared values that intersect national identities.

Because of the coexistence of multiple, often conflicting national identities and narratives, creation of a collective identity poses a particular challenge. How can diverse groups coalesce when pre-existing national identities appear so incompatible? Collective identity is rarely unitary or coherent, but rather fragmented and varying in nature.

In East Asia, one can see examples of multiple conflicting orders: the focus on national identity and self-interested power politics through alliance-building; the push for greater adherence to global governance through international institutions and law; and the pursuit of a regional community with common social and cultural identities. Within these numerous and coexisting possibilities, it would be desirable for East Asia to pursue a collective identity for the solidarity of a cohesive East Asian community. This should be forged by sociocultural approaches, which are already taking shape, through increasing intercultural exchanges and cross-state interdependence. However, because of a myriad of unresolved issues in the region, particularly divergent national trajectories and Western interference, building a collective East Asian identity would not only be an ambitious task but arguably not feasible in the near future.

Why build a collective East Asian identity?

Fostering a collective identity is an attractive prospect in the era of globalization, which has more often than not highlighted differences rather than commonalities between communities. A collective East Asian identity would fuel greater cohesion, facilitating interdependence and cooperation along the lines of the European Union, which has for many years been a source of stability and unity within Europe. Although it would be premature to envisage an East Asian community comparable to the EU, a similar regional dynamic is in the process of development in East Asia.

A salient incentive for the establishment of a collective East Asian identity is the gradual decline of the West, which is holding back the potential of an East Asian community that would be more powerful if it joined hands to combat the world’s challenges. Amid growing Western protectionism and isolationism, countries around the world are growing more opposed to the lecturing of the West and its ideals, which are by nature starkly different from Asian principles, rendering it irrational for East Asian states to follow Western logic. A collective East Asian identity that unites the values of the region would help to build an East Asian community by Asians and for Asians, so that the Asian people themselves can decide the fate of their future prosperity.

Additionally, it could help to foster reconciliation and peaceful relations. During the Cold War, cooperation and exchanges among East Asian countries were conducted through a narrow U.S.-led window, but now they are being accomplished on multiple levels in every direction. Economic interdependence has experienced tremendous expansion in the region, with China becoming the largest trading partner of Japan and South Korea. Continual discussions are being conducted about the signing of regional free trade agreements.

Economic interdependence has also contributed to greater intersocietal interaction and cultural interpenetration, increasing the flow of people, products and ideas across borders. Continuous academic exchanges seek to bridge the gap between differing historical memories, enhancing regional cooperation and mutual understanding.

Thus, building a collective East Asian identity should be a natural byproduct of the rising cross-cultural awareness in the region. Economic interdependence has become the catalyst for dynamic regionalism, leading to a growing assertion of shared Asian values that, if consolidated, would be beneficial not just regionally but also internationally, because of the profound cultural and soft power dimensions of global governance.

How could it be achieved?

Discussions of a collective regional identity tend to look to the European experience as a benchmark against which other processes of regionalism are judged. Although Europe is far from unitary or cohesive, the European integration project embodied in the EU is generally regarded as a success story in which states agree to turn formal economic coordination through regional institutionalization into a wider form of political and cultural integration.

Therefore, one way a collective East Asian identity could be achieved is through the promotion of regional organizations such as ASEAN. Yet, there is a lack of evidence to support the theory that institutionalized regionalism leads to the creation of a regional identity. While ASEAN has been successful in fostering healthy economic relations, it has often been a site for hostile mutual perceptions and interstate competition, with China and Japan both courting ASEAN in an attempt to balance each other and the U.S. presence in the region.

This paper thus concludes that the most favorable approach would be a transnational mode of identity construction that tells a grassroots narrative of hybridity, diversity, equal participation and coexistence from a sociocultural perspective. This would allow cultural differences to cut across national borders and create unity out of diversity.

This model could be facilitated by a top-down approach, along the lines of the Council of Europe’s “Europe, our common heritage” campaign, or through a grassroots awareness that would be more authentic, relevant to the masses and sustainable by constructing a non-elite community anchored in popular participation and understanding. This could be achieved through private businesses creating cross-border linkages or civil society projects fostering people-to-people exchanges. Through sociocultural interaction, the East Asian states could forge a collective identity that is not subordinate to politics, realist foreign policy or vertical hierarchies of Asian values but instead the binding power and universality of cultural diversity and appreciation.

Diversity and divergence: The illusory East Asian community

The term East Asia itself is a Western construct that arose during the period of European colonial expansion from the 17th century, when external powers labeled the area as such and created the illusion of a monolithic region.

Contrary to this concept, the region can be articulated as “a community of ambivalence,” home to complex issues such as the deep-seated Sino-Japanese rivalry, Japanese-Korean conflict and territorial disputes that plague the region despite the establishment of a regional security and economic architecture.

One of the major ways in which divergence hinders the establishment of a collective East Asian identity is found in the realm of history. History is universally a contentious and intense issue because of its direct link to the formation of nation-states. It is through this collective, constructed memory of the past that a nation is formed and its people are bound together. In few countries does history play a greater role than in China, as the legitimacy of China’s traditional and contemporary political power has always been rooted in interpretations of history.

A salient example of how history has become a major part of Chinese national identity is the “one hundred years of humiliation” that China faced at the hands of foreign imperialism between 1839 and 1949. The concept of national humiliation lies at the heart of the political culture of the People’s Republic of China, which has made it a stated goal to wipe out all forms of humiliation and remnants of China’s past weakness to achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese people.

This sense of victimhood is present not just in China but also in Japan, one of the main aggressors toward China during the century of humiliation and also a country that experienced the dropping of two atomic bombs during World War II. Both countries thus possess a victim consciousness that differs from the other. Japan’s historical memory based on victimhood, rather than aggression, has served the Japanese people in absolving them of guilt, impeding a self-critical confrontation of the nation’s past and providing fertile soil for the growth of neonationalism, which denies or whitewashes Japan’s wartime atrocities.

In this way, memories of the past and war remain vivid and continue to affect the present and future relations of all East Asian nations, which in turn shapes their own national identities and fostering of nationalistic sentiments. Japan has forged its nationalism on the basis of forgetting the past, while China and Korea have formed nationalisms and identities based on a remembrance of the past — a fundamental difference that continues to lurk in the shadow of East Asian relations and affect each country’s domestic perceptions of the others.

Despite increasing cross-cultural exchanges and societal interactions among East Asia’s vibrant civil societies, divergent frames of history will continue to act as barriers to the construction of a collective East Asian identity.

Western presence in the East

Another major factor prohibiting the construction of a collective East Asian identity is the current impossibility of displacing the U.S. presence in the region. Postwar East Asia has largely been a U.S.-led order, formed by the political, military and economic forces of the United States and its alliances with other states in the region. Creating a collective East Asian identity for and by Asians themselves would require the exclusion of the U.S., which is an unrealistic ideal that would not be welcomed by the U.S. nor indeed by many other Asian states. Any attempt to bring China and its neighbors closer will experience backlash from the U.S., which counterproductively strengthens the U.S. resolve to remain engaged in East Asia.

Moreover, many ASEAN states are not averse to, and often even appreciate, the presence of a benign U.S. hegemony in the region to balance destabilizing rivalries among the region’s major powers and alleviate inter-Asian security dilemmas.

Because of the dependence of Japan and South Korea on their alliances with the U.S. and its security umbrella, it is unlikely that those states would construct a pan-Asian identity with the exclusion of Western powers as its basis. In this way, the existing security structures in East Asia characterized by the U.S.-led hub-and-spoke arrangement will likely continue to be a systemic constraint making any attempt to build an exclusive Asian identity untenable.

One of the reasons the Western presence remains strong in East Asia is the prevalent concept that a united, strong Asia would be detrimental to Western global hegemony. “Yellow Peril” was a common mentality during the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, which held that the people of East Asia were an existential danger to the Western world. With the onset of the U.S.-China trade war, which goes far beyond a conflict of trade disagreements, one could even argue that we are in the midst of Yellow Peril 2.0, in which the Western world led by the U.S. would go to great lengths to prevent the rise of a powerful, united East Asia. Indeed, in the past, U.S. opposition has blocked exclusively Asian cooperation, notably the Asian Monetary Fund in 1997 after the Asian financial crisis.

Now, the U.S. is building an Asian NATO with its allies, installing missile defense systems across East Asia and conducting its Asia-Pacific rebalancing policy to counteract the rise of China. Not only would it be difficult to subvert the existing U.S.-led East Asian security order and break free from its bounds, but it would be even less feasible to alter the mindset of the West to mitigate unjustified fears of a dangerous, united East Asia.

East Asia, like all other regions, has more than one story. There is no such thing as a fixed East Asian identity. Rather, there is a dynamic combination of a variety of diverse stories, which produces a multidimensional and evolutionary collective identity always in the process of constructing and reconstructing itself. In this way, a collective East Asian identity could be built around the concept of “unity in diversity.” Full convergence in values is not possible, nor is it desirable. But within the diversity of East Asia can be found many fundamental commonalities that should be emphasized as sources of unity. Unity in diversity is also a double-edged sword in the sense that it holds the implicit meaning that diversity itself is something to be celebrated as a binding, rather than separating, factor.

To create an environment in which this could be achieved, there are several hurdles to overcome. Historical reconciliation should take top priority, with each state making efforts to identify and understand the reasons behind the divergence in historical memory. Although wartime memories remain divided, the diversity of views within each nation and the rise in academic exchanges provide hope that more open discussions can be held to foster mutual historical understanding.

Additionally, the national histories of each East Asian state need not target a third party or fuel nationalistic sentiment. For example, the rejuvenation of the Chinese people can be accomplished through behavior that is neither intrinsically anti-Japanese nor anti-Western, while Japan can achieve a sense of pride in its precolonial history without dismissing or downplaying its aggressive imperial past.

The second major hurdle — namely bypassing the omnipresent American intervention in East Asia — is more challenging in the long term. Here I would emphasize the argument that the possibility of constructing a collective East Asian identity does not lie in the simple dichotomy between Sinocentrism and a U.S.-led order but rather in a transnational, cultural paradigm that avoids the complexities and sensitivities of political hegemony, looking to the universality of culture as a source of cohesion. This approach also gives power to the people and reduces the risk of identity formation being hijacked by elitist agendas and state-led nationalism.

Constructing a collective East Asian identity lies at the heart of China’s neighborhood diplomacy, which seeks to build a regional community founded on win-win cooperation, mutual benefit and tolerance. Despite major challenges, one can already witness developments that foreshadow greater regional unity through cultural commonalities.

For example, in June last year, President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe reached a 10-point consensus to jointly promote healthy bilateral relations, of which one was the acknowledgement that China and Japan are “both important contributors to the development of Asian civilization” and should therefore “inherit and carry forward the achievements of Asian civilization.” By stressing the universality of culture and solidifying the foundations of commonality based on Asian civilization, East Asian nations can foster stronger relations and build a common platform that can bridge the gap between national differences, diversities and divergences.

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