21 October 2014
Asia's Dilemma

Asia's Dilemma

Miao Yang, a summer student at Tokyo's Sophia University, shares her thoughts with us on "Asia's Dilemma".

Miao Yang, a summer student at Tokyo's Sophia University, shares her thoughts with us on "Asia's Dilemma".

Asia's rapid economic expansion and social development within decades have amazed the world, meanwhile raising the concern that whether this regional renaissance will bring an "Asian century". Despite such progress, Asia is confronting several challenges for achieving its dominance in the 21st century. While lack of both technological innovation and openness to trade stifles Asia's further advancement, gender inequality rooted in an Asian patriarchal society also suppresses Asia's burgeoning power. My International Studies major contributes to my following analysis of Asia's predicament in this paper, with an argument that the absence of regional integration in Asia stagnates its growth. Besides, hypothetically even Asia dissolves tension among countries and enhances collaboration finally, how Asia adapts its culture to a global market pre-set by western value will be another challenge.

Analysis of the Asian Status Quo

Since China and Japan are the current leading powers in Asia, their association becomes decisive in accomplishing an "Asian Century". Geopolitics shapes social characteristics and diplomatic policies of a country. The affluence of natural resources historically determines China's temperate diplomacy and in most of the ancient time, China adopted tribute trade as the special diplomatic negotiation rather than outward expansion. It is what Georgia Friedman commented in his work The Next 100 Years: A forecast for the 21st century: "China is not historically aggressive and has only intermittently involved itself with the rest of the world" (90). Middle Kingdom as the country proudly titled itself, China was also defined by Hegel as unhistorical, for "it is only the repetition of the same majestic ruin" (106). Such self-satisfaction would soon bring disaster, for China had not prepared for rapid world changes accelerated by the industrial revolution.

Geopolitics made Japan subordinate to China historically and culturally. Japan does not have much natural resources and the sense of crisis makes this nation especially sensitive to other countries' preponderance. Japan learns to adapt itself to changed conditions. Matthew Perry with his flotilla from the U.S. in 1853 astonished Japanese society with its sophistication of western technology. The article named "Datsu-A Ron" (De-Asianization) was later published in 1885 and reflected Japan's ideological transition from worshiping China's traditions to imitating western development. Geopolitics also molds Japan's aggressive diplomacy during World War II, with its demand for outward expansion to support domestic industrialization.

Given that the existence of weak states or of politically empty spaces become attractive to foreign invasion, China's weakness through 19th to 20th century triggered Japanese imperialism and the subsequent war between two countries. Today the remaining Senkaku islands (Diaoyu) dispute again starts tension left by the unpleasant history and destructs Asian harmony. While China claims historical sovereignty over the island, Japan declares its recipient of transferred administrative control of the island from the United States since World War II. Other than natural resources, China aims at the realignment of political power in the Asian region. Though threatened by China’s rapid economic growth in the past decades, Japan has not prepared for the changing status quo in the Asia-pacific area. The current Asia-pacific tension results from China's intention of alternating the status quo maintained by Japan since World War II.

Historical tension and the consequent rising nationalism further dissociate Asian countries' cooperation. Nationalistic ideology is adopted by all governments to maintain their political stability. Japanese government's worshiping Yasukuni Shrine escalates hostility in China and Korea, followed by both countries' boycott against Japanese products. Asia is experiencing the dilemma in which grudge permeates into countries' diplomacy and prevents Asia from being a strong and united power.

Asia's awkward situation resides in the fact that it is neither like Europe nor like North America. European Union is the most advanced region in terms of cooperation and integration. Not only a single market with common currency accepted by majorities of its member states, but also high mobility of capital and population within the Schengen area stimulate EU's prosperity. With the concentration of economic flows and coordination of foreign policies, European countries synchronize with each other politically economically and socially, manifested by the comparatively equal development of each nation. Although some eastern European countries are less powerful, strong countries such as Germany, France and Britain result in a multi-hegemonic union in which balance of power is maintained and all proceed together for the better. In 2012, EU was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for its promotion of peace, democracy and human rights (Wikipedia).

In contrast with Europe, North America reflects the tendency of unilateralism. The United States has established world hegemony with its economic and military superiority since World War II. In 1988, the United States and Canada signed a free trade agreement that reduced trade and investment barriers and provided guidelines for the trade in services, and in 1992 they were joined by Mexico in signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Instead of economic integration, NAFTA aims at a gradual elimination of tariff and nontariff barrier to trade, which also facilitates more rapid economic growth in North America. Nevertheless, as a leading power the U.S. can influence other countries' diplomatic decisions and the whole region will progress under the U.S.'s aspiration.

In Asia the countries do not associate closely as European nations do, nor does an Asian country become overwhelmingly strong that dominates the whole area and leads to regional renaissance. Rather than historical tension and territorial dispute, Asia's diverse religions, uneven economic developments and various political systems also hinder it from being a united force. Though recently pop-culture working as soft power helps to encourage cultural exchanges and mitigate tension among countries, how far it can go to achieve historical reconciliation and increase Asia's harmony remains unknown. This is Asia's dilemma.

Analysis of Asia's survival in western pre-set system

Asia has been working on its realization of regionalism. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), comprising 21 countries along the Pacific Rim, has proposed an ambitious Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) endeavors to accelerate economic expansion, social progress and cultural integration among its 10 member states. If ASEAN is considered as a single unity, it would rank as the sixth largest economy in the world, behind the US, China, Japan, India and Germany (Wikipedia). Hypothetically, if Asia indeed resolves political conflicts and settles economic difference among countries, how far will it go in a world in which the rules of game have been set by western countries since the Industrial Revolution?

Distinctive from western culture, Asian culture is more collective and patriarchic, reflected in the stagnation of innovation and gender inequality. The advancement of innovation in Asia is constrained by socio-political system and cultural traditions.

Thomas (2010) declares that academic freedom is essential to student learning and to a democracy characterized by open, reasoned, and vigorous political discourse. In China, after June 4th 1989 Marxism-Leninism was added as an obligatory course in most universities and patriotism is always twinned to the fervor for communist party in Chinese education. While academic freedom and university autonomy should be viewed as the centralized reflection of the core values in higher education, there is still a subtle but inescapable connection between academic freedom and political motives in China, which cannot result in complete freedom of thought. When universities cannot exercise the freedom of ideas, the society loses the diversity of ideas and likelihood of intellectual progress. Albeit political complexion in China’s case, exclusive reliance on standardized testing for pedagogical assessment in other Asian countries such as Japan or South Korea, also sets up a exam-oriented system in which the lack of practical application and over-dependence on knowledge from textbooks stifle the development of students’ creativity.

Collectivism inside Asian culture encourages collaboration, which is beneficial to a country’s early stage of modernization. However, as the country climbs up on the global ladder, innovation is indispensable to its continuous prosperity. In regard to innovation, even the most advanced Asian country Japan cannot compete with the United State which values individualism and celebrates the spirits of being unique. The assimilation of diverse voices in Asian society may result in homogenization as its product.

Furthermore, Asian tradition is male chauvinism oriented. Though social progress reduces sexism in some Asian nations, the whole area is not in an optimistic situation. According to the investigation on Global Gender Gap, only one Asian country ranks in top 20 (Philippine is placed the fifth in terms of less discrimination against women). Even Japan and Korea with their thriving economies and mature democracy are only placed 105th and 111th out of 136 countries, which again stresses on the urgency of resolving gender inequality. When women’s power and status are not recognized by the society, human progress becomes sluggish. In today’s Asia, two thirds of women live in poverty. If such situation is not improved, there will be a long way to go before the arrival of an Asian century. This is Asia’s subsequent challenge after the region’s solidarity.

The thing concerns me most is not Asia’s challenges in retrieving global dominance but how Asia will come back in its own way. The current world system is more based on western ideologies in which capitalistic and individualistic values are prevalent. For thousands of years Asia has lived with its own civilization and social rules. There exist the inevitable frictions between imitating western development and maintaining its traditions. How Asia accommodates to globalization without obliterating its own culture nurtured by history is worth consideration. Japan has experienced such dilemma and it went through a successful transformation. Now it is turn for other Asian countries. It is not only a challenge for Asia’s renaissance; it is a challenge for Asia’s cultural survival in this sophisticated world.
Tags: asia

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