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How Are You, Asian Dream?

Is the vision of Asian unity just a mirage?

February 18, 2014

Credit: Anton Balazh -

From the Middle East in Western Asia to both South and North East Asia, there are at least five significant threats to be concerned about. They might jeopardize not just Asia’s social stability and future economic growth, but also solidarity among Asian nations and people.

1. Societal tensions in the Middle East are rising

First, tensions in the Middle East and North Africa are commonly viewed – in, for example, the World Economic Forum’s Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 – to be the biggest challenge facing the world in the coming year.

Two years after the Arab Spring, those pluralistic revolutions have not brought the desired results. The domestic situation in most countries remains shaky, if it is not regressing. Peace and prosperity seem more elusive than ever in the Middle East.

2. Korean peninsula tensions are continuing

The shocking execution of his uncle by Kim Jong Un underscored that the totalitarian and Stalinist dictatorship North Korean regime remains highly unpredictable.

The outside world is worried about the young leader using more war games to shift attention away from domestic matters and enhance his authority. South Korea has hinted that North Korea is showing signs of preparations to carry out its fourth nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch.

Then, North Korea warned that South Korea and the United States will provoke a sharp escalation in tensions with annual military drills due in February to April. But South Korea has rejected such a warning. Still, a massive military build-up on the Korean peninsula seems inevitable.

3. Sino-Japanese relations are deteriorating

Along with the ongoing dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine marks a low point in the post-war Sino-Japanese relations.

Both China and Japan have been haunted by the history of the two Sino-Japanese Wars of the modern era, in 1894 and from 1937 to 1945.

For China, the loss of face in the two violent Japanese invasions has not been sincerely and satisfactorily compensated by Japan. Its government has consistently refused to make a real apology, because it is probably viewed as a kind of shame.

Furthermore, Japan has been quite uncomfortable with China’s rise. Such confrontations between China and Japan, the world’s No. 2 and No. 3 economies, make Asia’s future worrisome.

4. South China Sea disputes are simmering

China recently announced new rules to regulate fishing in the disputed South China Sea. This move came despite protests by neighboring countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.

The new regulation was also criticized by the United States as provocative and potentially dangerous. Such disputes – while looking innocuous and almost trivial, if viewed in isolation – could spark confrontations that seriously undermine regional peace.

The Philippines and Vietnam proposed to bring the case to a United Nations arbitration tribunal. However, China has firmly rejected the proposal. Instead, China prefers to solve the disputes within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework. Likely, China’s tactic may be intended to split ASEAN by forcing member states to choose sides over the disputes.

5. Thailand is experiencing political impasse again

The massive demonstrations in Bangkok have been lasting for months and show no signs of ending peacefully. The opposition insists on directly overthrowing the Yingluck government, not a very democratic approach, to put it mildly.

Now that the elections have taken place, the politically polarized Thai society may prove unable to reach a real reconciliation. Given that there is so little general consensus on democracy, the election results might not matter.

Due to its founding principle of non-interference, ASEAN is quietly watching Thailand’s struggle in the vicious coup-election-coup cycle. However, if ASEAN’s second-largest member country fails to solve its internal affairs and cannot deliver stability and development, ASEAN as a whole will also suffer eventually.

Other Asian countries also face critical challenges

Last December, Singapore was shocked by the Little India Riot, the first major riot in the 44 years since the racial disturbances in 1969. In January of this year, Bangladesh experienced the most violent and controversial election in its history with 21 people killed.

Cambodia, for its past, suffered the most extreme crackdown by its government in 15 years. And it is uncertain if the coming general elections in India and Indonesia will provide any constructive resolution of domestic tensions than simply keep building up.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, ever the optimist, has confidently asserted that “the Asian [regional integration] model is more applicable to the world” than other approaches because it bridges many civilizations, not just countries. He also believes that ASEAN, in particular, “is a more useful model for the rest of the world than the European Union (EU).”

However, the jolt of reality in our Asia tells another story. Two simple examples show that Asia is actually far behind Europe.

First, although most European countries suffered badly from the Nazi Germany during World War II and despite the recent tension in the Eurozone following the 2007/08 global financial crisis, Europe has managed to achieve what was long thought impossible.

Europe has successfully integrated into a peaceful and prosperous regional community, with Germany as a key member. In contrast, contemporary Asia is still riveted with the after effects of the Japanese invasions.

Second, East and West Germany successfully reunited two decades ago. Overcoming severe ideological barriers, Germany thus provided a useful template for saving several Asian trouble spots.

Even today, the confrontation between North Korea and South Korea and the division between Mainland China and Taiwan – both situations that arose around the same time as the now-resolved partition of Germany – are still posing potential risks on regional peace.

We, the Asian people can dream of a wonderful future. But we would be better advised to be cautious. Otherwise, our big Asian Dream will just turn out to have been a beautiful mirage.


Confrontations between China and Japan, the world’s No. 2 and No. 3 economies, make Asia’s future worrisome.

We in Asia can dream of a wonderful future. But our big Asian Dream may just be a beautiful mirage.

China’s tactic may be intended to split ASEAN, by forcing member states to choose sides over the disputes.

Asia is actually far behind Europe in getting on with its neighbors.