Monday, December 14, 2009

About An East Asian Union

The idea of an East Asian Union is suddenly real. The idea has a long history: Been proposed by Count Okakura in the early Twentieth century, and championed by Rabindranath Tagore and Sun Yet Sen in India and China respectively. But the idea died its death with the emergence of imperial, fascist Japan, which cruelly enslaved the rest of East Asia and reached India. Since then, the idea became discredited, seen as a smokescreen for Japanese imperialism. Post-war, Asian divisions became harder to bridge, and many Cold War battles, in Korea, Vietnam, India-Pakistan, India-China were fought in Asia. World's most dangerous points of tension, Kashmir, Taiwan, are all in Asia: It is widely seen as the most likely battleground for a Third World War if it has to happen.


But, suddenly, an Asian statesman, in Japan, is talking about an United Asia. This is a bit strange. Because, when the idea was somewhat revived in the 1990s, by Malaysia's Dr Mahatir Mohammad, Japan cold-shouldered it and it eventually went nowhere. Japan's new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, ruffled a few feathers when he wrote the extraordinary article just before he got elected, where he rejected the American model of society and business and said that time has come to build a Japan based on Japanese ideals. He went further, thereafter, talking about the possibilities of an United Asia. He is a pragmatist though: He acknowledges the challenges and that Asia is far more difficult to unite than Europe, given the dissimilarities of the stages of political development in different countries. But, he sees the possibilities of an economic union in the near term, and wants to start the journey towards a political union, which, going by the impact it will have, is every bit worth trying.


The idea is suddenly getting traction. So much so that even The Economist, the principal instrument of propagation of the Anglo-Saxon World View, thought it is worth commenting on. Of course, the almost expected suggestion of The Economist that America must be involved, and any institution that is built to unite Asia must include America. How very predictable, and how absurd?

It should not. Because the idea of an United Asia is natural in this multi polar world, and it should pursue the twin goals of political security and economic growth independent of the mechanization of any external interest. In fact, an United Asia, if allowed to happen, can guarantee World Peace for some time to come. But, obviously, many people, including The Economist reading types will quickly start seeing at as an Anti-American conspiracy, and try to dilute it as much as possible.

Which will be a return to history as usual. The idea of United Asia never took off because it was too big, too powerful an union for the comfort of powers that be. The idea returned in many forms, including the principle of Panch-Sheel in the Bandung conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955, but it was always seen with suspicion and opposed as the final frontier of Asian independence. It could have guaranteed world peace, and eradicated a large part of Global poverty, but undermined the leverage that America and Europe had over the world affairs.

However, this time the idea has a lot more traction because we are at an inflection point, and we are realizing, in a number of ways, that the models that got us this far will not take us any further. Despite my anger with Barack Obama's Nobel Speech, my friends have managed to convince me to remain optimistic, and see this as a pragmatic, low tone display of his idealism. He may still remain the biggest chance the Asians have to start the unification process, as the President, I must admit, does not seem to see the world in zero-sum terms. At least, not when he is not fighting a big battle at home.

So, I see a big turn for an United Asia around the corner. This may start in 2010, with the world slowly returning to growth and optimism, with Barack Obama finally sorting out the domestic Health care issues and being able to commit to big international initiatives yet again. However, this is not going to be easy. Each country needs to do its bit, and the citizens of each country must now start exploring the possibilities and cooperation in business and life in general. I see some significant civil society initiatives for closer cooperation among countries, and civil societies almost leading the governments beyond the petty divisions and towards the bigger picture.

I know I am an optimist, but I know there are millions more like me all over Asia.

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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