Global HotSpots

How Are You, Asian Dream?

Is the vision of Asian unity just a mirage?

Credit: Anton Balazh -


  • 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.

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.

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About Sun Xi

Sun Xi is a China-born alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is an independent commentary writer based in Singapore.

Responses to “How Are You, Asian Dream?”

Archived Comments.

  1. On February 19, 2014 at 6:36 am richard responded with... #

    I think your quick analysis that Thailand operates as a democracy is not accurate. If you consider vote buying, populist policies that attract voters and corruption on a vast level as democratic, then I agree. I disagree with sweeping statements about the opposition as not taking a very democratic approach as an uninformed statement. I realize your essay is meant to be general, but please do not include untrue statements to make your point. Do your homework first.

  2. On February 19, 2014 at 9:54 am bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    Our author is correct and you are unfortunately mistaken. The Thai opposition has openly stated that its current goal is the suspension of democracy, to be replaced indefinitely by an unelected committee of experts until the country is “ready” for democracy. They have made no secret about their disdain for continuing democracy and have no intention of retaining even the appearance of it, even if you believe there is no democracy right now either.

    But to that point, in fact, there has also never been any proof that the ruling party has ever engaged in vote buying. And what you define as “populist policies that attract voters” many analysts would define as “policies designed to help under-served populations,” which unsurprisingly translate into enthusiastic political support. If the opposition wishes to win an election, they should consider appealing to a broader coalition with rural voters instead of mocking those voters and ignoring them, as they have done in the past when in power (by the support of the military).

  3. On February 19, 2014 at 7:52 pm richard responded with... #

    I continue to disagree, having lived here, as I currently do, for thirteen years, gives me a different perspective from that of a writer who lives overseas and has not experienced first hand the atrocities under the current government. I also admit that previous governments have also not done their job properly, but they have not engaged themselves in such openly corrupt practices as the current government including the passage of a bill which would have returned the previous, prime minister who was responsible for 2500 extrajudicial deaths in a so-called anti-drug war, along with hundreds of other deaths and murders in the South against the Muslim people. Indeed there is evidence of vote buying, I have talked with those offered as little as 500 baht for their vote.

    I’m sorry that I am not as good a writer as yourself to eloquently itemize why I believe as I do, but it appears to me that you are repeating much of what foreign media report, which has always been inaccurate and often just erroneous. I would suggest you come and speak with the people and read local media to obtain a more accurate understanding of the situation.

    Yes the anti-government demonstrators have proposed suspending democracy as currently practiced by the government, but only for the time necessary to create reforms of political practices which are openly corrupt and actually undemocratic. In fact this movement is much deeper and more complex than you or I realize because it involves the future of the entire governing system.

  4. On February 20, 2014 at 12:46 am Sun Xi responded with... #

    Thanks Richard for your comments and I respect your disagreements, although I disagree with you.

    Yes, I may not be more familiar with Thailand (your country?)’s situation than you (maybe not, because “People may be living too close to see the mountain as a whole better than outsiders” as our Chinese proverb says), but Thai people’s voting decisions have already shown us the majority’s prferrences.

    Finally,”A flawed democracy seems to have failed in Thailand, but trying to fix those flaws rather than giving up on democracy will prove to be a more sustainable solution to end the vicious coup-election-coup cycle and the widening political divide among the regions.”

    SUN Xi

  5. On February 20, 2014 at 9:24 am richard responded with... #

    Sun Xi, No disrespect intended, but it appears we are arguing semantics and understanding of what is currently happening in Thailand. Yes, what the anti-government demonstrators are doing is to some degree, undemocratic, but even as decided by the Civil Court yesterday, the people are acting within the limits of the constitution to demand change in Thailand. I think people get hung up over the term ‘democracy’. What we are looking at is an attempt to bring Thailand back into a democratic system where corruption, nepotism, feudalism and unfair practices are stopped or minimized.

    A flawed democracy has failed here and no one is giving up on democracy – can you define it as it exists here? The people have shown their desire in numbers, hundreds of thousands if you read the local papers, to stop the practices of the current government. Current practices are not democratic and regardless of your belief that it was elected fairly, it was indeed not. If you follow current developments, you will see that the Army has no interest in a coup, no one wants that. The people just want justice and fairness and to be treated evenly across society.

    To get back to the original comment in your article, the only thing I disagreed with originally is the comment that overthrowing the Yingluck government is not a very democratic one. How does one rid itself of a cancer when the entire system protects it and promotes its development? Extreme measures have been taken and may soon show the world that the cancer has been eliminated. It is a difficult situation to say the least. It is multi-faceted, it involves many aspects of Thai life and the way in which it has been managed, and reaches to the highest form of government in the country. I wish I could say more, but to do so may put me in an unfortunate position. I really don’t intend to offer any other comments here because the facts are clear. If the current government is not thrown out, that which follows will be far more dictatorial and absent of the checks and balances it now has.

  6. On February 20, 2014 at 8:43 pm Sun Xi responded with... #

    Thanks richard again

    You have raised several interesting points which I accept them with respects.

    About my detailed ideas about Thailand’s choas, please see my article