Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Concept of East Asian Union & America

In the context of the discussion about the East Asian Union, there is a lot of unease in America and Europe. It almost appears that there is some kind of conspiracy against them, by some socialist powers, though the idea is generating in Japan and the adherents, countries like South Korea and Taiwan, are strong American allies. I have been told that the scheme is to undermine American hegemony, which is partially correct, but seen from a different perspective, this is not such a bad thing for America itself.

Let me explain. I do not think East Asian Union, if it ever happens, will be about undermining anyone. We should not think about this in nationalist terms; as this is not going to be a nation and will not act like a nation. This is possibly the strongest rationale for promoting such an union. Asia, as of today, is much like the Europe of the Twentieth century. Home of strong and emerging powers, biggest armies and arsenal. Many of the world's most dangerous points of tension are in Asia. A nationalist rivalry in Asia can bring about another world war and destroy the world. It is, indeed, in no one's interest to have a new nationalist rivalry in Asia.

Traditional diplomacy is less effective in containing such conflicts than one would think. The reason is traditional diplomacy is conducted between governments, and in order to maintain a status quo, world's powers concentrated on keeping compliant governments in power so as to keep nations working together. As demonstrated in Pakistan, such mechanization can seriously destabilize a country from inside and allow non-state powers to assume control - political and moral - over the lives of its citizens. We have seen this happening in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and in some of the regions of India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. If we follow the traditional process, based on the European style state-based diplomacy, eventually the national governments will be so much devalued that they will not be able to control the agenda any more. The whole region will spin out of control and cause dislocation of the peaceful world order.

A Supra-national union, in a sense, is more than a nation. Jean Monet saw this when he said he was not just cobbling together nations, he was uniting men. Policy-making in Asia now must go beyond the governments and traditional power elites in various national capitals, and reengage the people on the street, and more importantly, in the villages, by expanding the economic opportunity and taking away the 'nationalist excuse' for fermenting conflict. Such a formation will only be in America's, and Europe's, interest.

The configuration of the world as we know it are changing and all nations must adjust to this quickly, or otherwise face serious problems. For America, it will be about adjusting to a world where hegemony is meaningless. As America will learn from its adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the huge superiority in military power is, in a sense, useless for a democratic country. While the countries may be required to maintain a credible deterrent for some time to come, being able to destroy the world many times over does not necessarily help win wars on the ground. So, in the post-national world, leadership and moral power will be more important than hegemony based on military power. In the context, America would much rather have an United Asia as a partner than a clutch of nations competing with it for global or regional dominance.

For Asia, it also must avoid the trappings of neo-nationalism, because it will only engage the nations with wrong priorities. While the traditional authority of the state is being undermined, a resurgence of nationalism is evident among the power elite in India, China, Iran, Pakistan and other major Asian powers. This is quite dangerous in the context that, in the face of climate change, quite a few nations will be unviable, and will then have to engage in existential struggle. It makes much more sense for Asian powers to move towards coexistence and cooperation than one of conflict.

There is an ongoing discussion whether America will be part of an Asian Union, and whether such an union should happen within the framework of ASEAN or ASEAN+3. I do not think America should be a part of the Asian Union, because it is not in Asia. It is in America's interest, not in the old, zero-sum way, but in the context of the new post-conflict world order, to allow a deep union among the Asian nations. This is not going to happen if America is a party. Besides, ASEAN and all other institutions are quite redundant in the context of the new Asian Union, and one must look fresh and start from scratch. I do not think such an union will happen over a day, despite all the experiences of Europe, and throwing the concept straight into the pot of a cold-war formation like ASEAN will kill the baby straightaway [this anyway seems to be the objective many policy wonks, who continue to live in a cold-war mindset]. I think the union may start outside ASEAN, through closer ties between countries, including economic unions, visa free travel and military cooperation. The dialogue should possibly start between China, Japan and India first, though the differences in political and economic systems will have to be negotiated before it can go anywhere.

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