The foundations for an East Asian Union, based on shared culture and historical links, are in place. We just need the political will

By: Stefano Mariani
On May 1, Japan inaugurated the first day of the Reiwa era, but in 1868, another era transition brought with it a seismic shift in Asian politics. The enthronement of the Meiji emperor marked Japan’s embrace of Western institutions and modernity, and the emergence of the doctrine of Pan-Asianism, by which Japan cast itself as the natural leader of the East Asian world, arguing that Asia should be for Asians and that the political destiny of Asian countries should be determined free from Western interference.

Rooted in the shared cultural and historical experience of China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, which might by some commentators today be termed “Asian values”, the ideal of Pan-Asian collaboration was admired by icons of China’s own modernisation movement such as Sun Yat-sen and Lu Xun.

Though the Pan-Asian concept was tarnished by the experience of Japanese military adventurism – the Japanese argued that the true motive for expansionism was to rid Asia of European colonial powers – its focus on regional collaboration, solidarity, and joint economic and military development responsive to Asian needs and perspectives remains deeply relevant in today’s tumultuous regional geopolitics.

From a European perspective, it is surprising that long-standing disputes between various East Asian states remain intractable. Decades of institutional and economic integration in Europe have established a zone of peace in which serious political or military conflict is unthinkable. In the arc of two generations, the threat of war has been entirely eliminated from the continent.

The European Union, though far from perfect, was built on common cultural and political norms shared by its member states. Similarly, East Asian countries have profound ethnic, cultural and historical links that could form the basis for closer regional collaboration.

They are all part of the historic Sinosphere, sharing the same classical Chinese writing system, Confucian social and moral philosophy, Mahayana Buddhist ethics, aesthetic taste and literary culture. The foundations for regional cooperation are therefore firmly in place. Why then, do we not have an Asian Union?

What is lacking is political will in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo to engage with one another on a future-oriented basis. It is unfortunate that the focus of historical discussion in East Asia is on the last century of hostility, when for most of recorded history, exchanges in the greater East Asian region were in general peaceful and led to the development of a shared culture that today is manifested in marked similarities in contexts as diverse as graphic arts, architecture, folk beliefs and cuisine.
There are even Pan-Asian heroes to match Charlemagne – a national hero in both France and Germany – like Zheng Chenggong , known in Taiwan as Koxinga. Born of a Chinese father and a Japanese mother, he has the distinction of being held in high regard by the Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese thanks to his victory over the Dutch and their subsequent expulsion from Taiwan, which was feted as an early example of Asian military success against a Western power.

His legacy straddles national boundaries, and speaks to the rich heritage of close commercial, cultural and family ties that has always bound the East and South China seas.

Institutional collaboration between East Asian countries even on a much less formal basis than the European Union, which is arguably overly bureaucratic, could also provide a framework for the resolution of some of the thorniest territorial and political disputes that still act as a barrier to the formation of a truly balanced East Asian geopolitical order that is not dependent on US security guarantees.

US wants Japan, South Korea to tag team China. History’s in the way
Outstanding controversies over the Diaoyu Islands, which Japan calls the Senkakus, Taiwan and the political status of North and South Korea are best addressed in a context of regional institutions that can guarantee that mutual concessions between interested parties are not a zero-sum game, but part of a broader confidence-building exercise.

Western Europe was dogged throughout its history by territorial disputes, but it is today inconceivable that Germany or France would resort to military posturing over the Rhine border, or that Ireland and Great Britain would go to war over Ulster.

A fresh Pan-Asian approach to regional reconciliation would align with the current strategic priority in Beijing of balancing US dominance of the Western Pacific, and reassure South Korea, Japan and Taiwan that China’s aims are multilateral and not hegemonic.

If it is true, as China claims, that the US has an interest in fostering division in East Asia to maintain regional dominance, perhaps China should make a case for alternative regional institutions founded in a spirit of equality and better reflecting the Asian historical experience.

One starting point would be to rethink the way history is understood. Instead of seeing the past in terms of a purely national narrative, I would suggest seeking common ground in a shared, Asian experience in the same way as European history is now framed as a history of an economic and political context that transcends national borders.

Such a change in perspective should begin at the grass-roots level, much as it has in Europe, where decades of peace and relatively open borders have allowed a specifically European identity to develop. That millions of Hong Kong tourists flock to Japan or Korea every year shows that they feel an affinity to those countries.

They know that Nara in Japan offers some of the best-preserved examples of classical Tang or Sung dynasty architecture, given that China’s architectural landscape was scarred by the Cultural Revolution. But there they will also find a fragment of their own heritage that is at once both at its origin Chinese and, in a more general sense, distinctly Asian.

Source: scmp