Much is made about the 21st century belonging to Asia, but what exactly does this mean? This is not a question of the region’s rising economic and political importance, but the broad strokes in which observers seem to brush over the continent is rather misleading. Talks of Asian growth are largely specific to China and Southeast Asian countries as opposed to the continent of Asia.
The confusion largely stems from the absence of any agreed definition of an Asian identity, due in part because Asians themselves are not necessarily united beyond the continent on which they inhabit. In common parlance, “Asia” is sometimes used to refer only to the peoples of East and Southeast Asia; however, Asia encompasses far more than those countries bordering or in the Pacific.
With respect to that fast economic development in Southeast Asia, the region is no less united in pursuit of prosperity and resolving territorial disputes. Asean has served as the primary vessel through which Southeast Asian nations address and manage regional concerns; however, the forum has proved rather ineffective in dealing with the South China Sea disputes. Hopes of an Asean unity may appear far off, but it is a far easier task than an Asian unity.
The Asian Identity
From a large portion of the Middle East and the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean, “Asian values” nonsense to the contrary, Asia cannot be defined as one language, one people, or one religion. It is not surprising that Asia is often broken down to sub-regions such as the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia so as to better describe who and what one is discussing.
Talk of one unifying Asian identity is, at present, a hypothetical exercise given its size. If there is an Asian identity, it will be so vague as to be nonexistent. Regardless, a discussion on Asian identity does provide an opportunity to compare against Europe, no less diverse, and its successful establishment of a European identity.
Simply put, Europe, even with the broadest of generalizations, is a far more cohesive entity than Asia. There exists a quality to “being” European-born from possessing certain shared values and beliefs, a shared continental history despite language, religious, and cultural differences. Western Europe and Eastern Europe, Northern Europe and Southern Europe—though each is different, they are also similar. The relative locality of nations and their shared borders, to say nothing of their history, have undoubtedly factored into the creation of a European identity and, as a result, the establishment of the European Union.
Asia, however, is a creation of Ancient Greece and has been perpetuated since, rather than a term originating from the continent. The term has only ever been used for broad strokes as opposed to referring to a specific group of people; and as such, it is not hard to imagine why no meaningful Asian identity has been established.
Distance as a consequence of Asia’s geographic size, in addition to its colonized past, has instead limited the exchange of historical cultural interactions between Asian nations. Although modern technological advances in communication and transportation such as the Internet and air travel have essentially eliminated, if not significantly reduced, barriers between Asian countries, creating an Asian identity similar to that in Europe would be no small feat, to say nothing of a potential integrated economic zone akin to the European Union.
Despite these difficulties, the Asia Cooperative Dialogue appears to have taken the first step toward fostering pan-Asian unity. Created in 2002, the organization aims to incorporate “every Asian country and building an Asian Community without duplicating other organizations or creating a bloc against others.” Only time will tell just how effective the ACD will prove.
An Asean Unity
If not Asia, then what about Asean?
At the heart of Asia-Pacific are China and the member states of Asean; however, the future bodes ill for Asean unity. The 2012 Asean Summit in Cambodia saw for the first time in the organization’s history a failure by member states to issue a joint closing statement, due in part to disagreements over China and the South China Sea.
The apparent failures of Asean may be attributed to a combination of its diverse membership and soft touch toward confronting issues. Although there is much to respect about the Asean way, it must be said that the Asean way has thus far proved ineffective in dealing with the South China Sea disputes. If Asean is to remain relevant in the coming years, it must change to reflect the times.
First, China is no longer a peasant country as it once was during the establishment of Asean. In today’s Asia-Pacific, China is a giant. It has economic, diplomatic and military weight. Though many Asean member states (especially Vietnam and the Philippines) are apprehensive with respect to China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, they are unable to muster an appropriate response, as evidenced during the 2012 Asean Summit.
Second, Asean must recognize its limitations. The organization is without a natural leader. That every member state is equal may appear ideal, but it leaves Asean rudderless when tackling challenges such as the South China Sea disputes. Asean needs a leader, a state possessing the influence and resources necessary to muster its fellow members into action.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, for Asean to endure, it must be rooted in something deeper than economic pursuits; and as such, the organization must put forth core values on which it will build for the future. These values should include individual freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Talks of Asean unity cannot have any real hope of success without encompassing those intangible qualities that are beyond monetary value.
For the similar reasons regarding an Asian identity, Asean unity is difficult to establish due to the fact that Asean member states are quite diverse, linguistically and culturally. Southeast Asia includes a number of ethnic groups and their respective languages, and dozens of religions as diverse as Christianity and Islam to Buddhism and Confucianism. Southeast Asia is no more united in identity than Asia.
Nevertheless, Asean unity is important largely because foreign interests do not always align with those of Asean states. China cannot be expected to hold the best interest of Asean at heart, and why should it? Chinese foreign policy is explicitly Chinese. Without a common foreign policy, Asean, and Southeast Asia as a whole, will be subject to the dictations of foreign powers.
Asean must grow to be more than an organization, more than a forum for discussion. It must seek to establish and grow an identity. Southeast Asia is far too vague, too broad, to define and unite; however, Asean if given a proper mandate, can aspire to champion the causes of Southeast Asia.
Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.