However, recent events provide considerable cause to worry. Territorial disputes are increasingly being set out in intractable terms. Nations are quick to declare territory as “inseparable” and even quicker to mobilize quasi-military units to defend the land in question.
Such behavior negates the possibility of diplomatic negotiation and can only result in conflict if left unchecked.
Domestic nationalism is playing a huge role in forcing the governments’ hands in these disputes, but such jingoism is merely a product of a government’s influence on its citizens. The tone it sets in its domestic politics is absorbed and then echoed through the loudspeaker of public outcry.
Once in Europe, governments were very quick to mobilize military units and even quicker to encourage public displays of infuriation. The end result was something that should never be repeated.
Last month, for the first time in its 45-year history, the ASEAN regional bloc failed to issue a joint statement at the conclusion of its annual summit — a move widely attributed to pressure placed on Cambodia, the host country, by China. While it could be easy to dismiss this as the norm for supranational projects, this development is deeply symbolic and very worrying.
ASEAN stresses an approach known as the “ASEAN way” — a broad political philosophy, where countries aim to avoid disputes and rather promote unity through harmony. The ASEAN way can be thanked for 45 years of joint statements and broad political agreement between the nations of Southeast Asia. Unity is ASEAN’s raison d’etre; it is unity and consensus which ASEAN members hope will put an end to conflict in the region. If Chinese economic coercion is enough to break the collective ideal of a community of nations, then the future does indeed look very bleak.
Unlike Europe and, to a lesser extent, the US, economic growth in many Asian nations remains very robust. However, even compared with the serious financial and political problems that are facing Western nations, an end to Asia’s fragile coexistence seems a frightening prospect.
It is often suggested that trade plays an important role in mitigating conflict and there is considerable evidence to support this idea. However, although Asian nations are trading more, they are also bolstering their military capacities and quietly preparing for the worst — not unlike the UK and Germany in the years prior to 1914.
One can only hope this assessment is misguided. J.M. Keynes famously said: “When the facts change, I change my opinion.” This holds true for the aforementioned thoughts. For the sake of all the citizens in Asia, it would be good if the facts begin to change.
Bryan Harris is a nongovernmental organization adviser, lecturer and copy-editor with the Taipei Times.