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Asia Needs Unity, Not Fragmentation

Aug 16 , 2016
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The last few decades have witnessed the economy in Asia growing at a faster pace than in most regions in the world, especially with China’s economic “miracle”, making it possible for the global political and economic landscape to shift tectonically in favor of emerging nations.

According to the IMF, based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), the biggest four economies in the world today are China, the US, India and Japan. Three are in Asia. What drives economic growth is population. By 2025, three-quarters of the world’s population will live in Asia, while the US and Europe will account for only 5% and 7% respectively. In 2012, the US Senate Intelligence Committee forecast that by 2030 Asia will surpass the US and Europe combined in terms of “global strength” indexed in GDP, population, military expenditure and technological input. The growth in Asia has contributed to narrowing the gap in wealth between East and West, which in turn has moved global governance from “West domination” to “sharing of power between East and West”.

As far as Asia is concerned, intra-regional trade has long reached the benchmark of 50% of its total external trade, and regional economic integration has gained traction for which political stability and Asian unity is the key.

However, troublesome geopolitical developments have emerged in recent years. Notably the US, as the most influential external power, has engaged in its “Pivot to Asia” with “Asia-Pacific rebalancing” while entering periodic strategic retrenchment worldwide. As a result, geopolitical tussles including disputes on islands and reefs in the South China Sea have intensified, creating “fragmentation” of Asia and East Asia in particular. The strange regional phenomenon of assuming that “economic growth relies on China while security depends on the US” continues. Moreover, with strong American support, its allies like Japan and the Philippines have been emboldened enough to directly challenge the core interests of China in the South China Sea and East China Sea, driving up the tension in the region and disrupting regional economic integration.

The first case that comes to mind about Asia fragmentation is obviously the internationalization and politicization of South China Sea disputes. The political farce staged by the Philippines might be over, but its “hangover” remains and tensions are still high. American direct involvement and saber-rattling in the South China Sea has shown no signs of receding.

There are only two options on this tricky issue:
1. Confrontational with continued “off-shore balance” by the US as the Philippines, Vietnam and others will persist in pushing the envelope.
2. A return to political negotiation, adopting the “dual track” approach as suggested by China. In view of the current circumstances, the second option will not easily gain momentum.

Another case is regional strategic balance, which is now being undermined and a dangerous arms race is under way. In this connection, there are two things worth mentioning: First, the US is completing its deployment of missile defense systems (MDS) close to Chinese territory in East Asia, including the most recent decision by the US and ROK to deploy the THAAD system with advanced X-band radar on ROK soil, which poses a threat to China’s nuclear deterrence capability, thus breaking the delicate and important regional strategic balance. Second, with a closer Japan-US military alliance, Japan is pursuing “normal big-power” status through militarization and loosening the constraints of its Peace Constitution and Yalta arrangements, which worries its neighbors including China and the ROK.

Asian unity sustaining its continuous growth is now being tested and threatened by “fragmentation” (described by Zheng Yongnian of Singapore as “Mid-Easternization of Asia”). If unchecked, Asia’s economic growth and cohesion could be compromised which is undoubtedly bad news to Asia and to the world at large.

Needless to say, positive developments in Asia always outweigh negative ones. As long as Asian nations proceed from their fundamental interests and overcome various obstacles, the “fragmentation” will fade away eventually. At present, they should focus on the following areas inter alia for immediate action:

1. To speed up regional integration by streamlining all sorts of FTAs and start negotiation on an APEC-wide FTA with a view to creating a better environment for trade and investment for the benefit of promoting sustained economic growth both in Asia and the world.

2. To make strenuous efforts to maintain regional strategic balance and prevent further arms race. American deployment of missile-defense systems surrounding China in East Asia no doubt undercuts strategic balance in the region. It would be wise for the US and its allies to reconsider and rescind that deployment, because in the end it will also hurt their security. Political dialogue needs to begin for real and with urgency to walk countries concerned through the zigzags of geo-political landscape.

3. To start diplomatic dialogue and negotiation on the issues of the South China Sea, the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula and regional counter-terrorism. As I put it above, the best approach to the South China Sea is certainly the “dual track” negotiation and dialogue between and among parties. This is the only viable way to settle the disputes and avoid possible confrontation. On the Peninsular nuclear issue, it is of utmost importance to restart political negotiation as soon as possible. It cannot afford further delay. On counterterrorism, regional cooperation will benefit all parties and increase strategic trust that is sorely lacking.

Asia is famous for its multiple civilizations and their core value systems that have guided Asian nations since ancient times. Recent decades have seen China making great contributions to regional economic growth and unity with its peaceful and rapid development. We need to take a historic view of what is happening today. “Fragmentation” is something that is temporary while Asian unity and common development will always be the hallmark of this great region.

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