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October 24, 2012 5:17 pm
The decision to award the EU the Nobel Peace Prize elicited understandable merriment. More than one comedian said that at least the Nobel committee had refrained from awarding the Europeans the prize for economics.
Still, it is worth asking which institution in Asia, where tension from previous wars still festers, has performed a similar role? The answer is none. Asia has a plethora of overlapping organisations. But not one of them has the breadth or depth to have played anything like the same role as the EU – let alone Nato – in a region far more complex, diverse and populous than Europe.
There are good reasons for the institutional gap. First, Asia is not so much a region as a European invention. Since Herodotus, the term has been used to refer vaguely to the world east of Europe. Second, for much of the period after 1945, Asia was frozen into ideological camps. Defeated Japan became a client state of the US. It sat on one side of the cold war divide. Communist China was on the other. That put Asia’s equivalent of Germany and France in different blocs, making anything like a European project a non-starter.
Some effective Asian institutions have been formed. The underrated Association of Southeast Asian Nations has done much to foster co-operation between 10 southeast Asian countries. Yet it includes neither China nor Japan. Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation has a much broader membership but it is a strictly economic grouping with no diplomatic pretensions.
Until now, the vacuum has been filled by the Pax Americana. US involvement in the Vietnam war – which it extended to Cambodia and Laos through secret bombing campaigns – undermines the bald claim that Washington has always guaranteed the peace. However, in recent decades US naval presence has provided a stable backdrop against which many Asian nations have been able to map their startling economic ascendancy. As China rises, though, Asia’s institutional weaknesses are becoming more obvious. Witness the Sino-Japanese dispute over the uninhabited islands called the Senkaku by Tokyo and the Diaoyu by Beijing. With no mechanisms to deal with the stirring of old nationalisms, the two sides are left to slug it out bilaterally. Anti-Japan demonstrations have erupted on China’s streets and there have been several potentially dangerous maritime skirmishes. Nationalists on both sides have called for war.
The new dynamic poses a dilemma for Beijing. As China grows more powerful, should it abide by what the world calls “international law”? Or would it be justified – as Pankaj Mishra, the Indian essayist, suggests – to “balk at being a stakeholder in someone else’s global order”? In practice, Beijing has often preferred bilateral to multilateral dialogue. One option would be to seek to impose a Chinese version of the Monroe doctrine, which declared Latin America off-limits to Europeans. Mr Mishra argues that, unlike the US, China lacks a proselytising impulse. It has never sought to impose Confucianism or communism on others. China’s neighbours, though, are unlikely to rely on Beijing’s goodwill. Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and India have all tacked closer to the US in response to China’s rise. Washington has pledged to maintain 60 per cent of its naval power in the Pacific. Even so, Pax Americana will become less tenable with each passing year.
What could replace it? In a recent speech in Singapore, Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, proposed an Asian-based system that he called Pax Pacifica. Its core objective would be to avoid regional instability and prevent war between China and the US. Its starting point would be that Washington accepts the legitimacy of China’s rise and Beijing accepts the US’s continued regional presence. Asean nations would play a central role to ensure it was not simply a US-Sino carve-up.
Mr Rudd says territorial arguments should be frozen. Countries should seek to develop disputed resources jointly. New protocols and hotlines between nations’ militaries should ensure clashes at sea do not escalate. Militaries could learn to co-operate through joint operations to fight crime and manage natural disasters.
It is not an idea plucked from thin air. Last year the US joined the East Asia Summit, a relatively new body with broad membership and, crucially, a security mandate. For the first time all the main actors, including China, the US, Japan, India, the nations of Asean and even Russia, are members of a broad regional group with bold ambitions. Mr Rudd hopes it could evolve into a grouping with a name something like the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Asia.
These are very early days. Beijing’s response to any attempt to create an Asian institutional framework will be important. It could plausibly put its weight behind an initiative that, at least theoretically, recognises the need to remake the regional order in response to China’s rise. Equally, it may conclude that Pax Pacifica is simply Pax Americana in disguise – containment by another name. We know one thing. Vacuums are dangerous. Asia needs an institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
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