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A Tale of Two Asias

Dr. Evan A. Feigenbaum

Whatever happened to the “Asian Century?” In recent months, two Asias, wholly incompatible, have emerged in stark relief.

There is “Economic Asia,” the Dr. Jekyll — a dynamic, integrated Asia with 53 percent of its trade now being conducted within the region itself, and a $19 trillion regional economy that has become an engine of global growth.

And then there is “Security Asia,” the veritable Mr. Hyde — a dysfunctional region of mistrustful powers, prone to nationalism and irredentism, escalating their territorial disputes over tiny rocks and shoals, and arming for conflict.

In today’s Asia, economics and security no longer run in parallel lines. In fact, they are almost completely in collision.

In the one domain, Asian economies have come in recent years to depend increasingly on China — and one another — for trade, investment, and markets. And this trend toward regional economic integration has been reinforced over the last four years by austerity in

Europe and slow growth in the United States. But these same economies now trade nationalist barbs, build navies, and acquire new arms and power projection capabilities.

With the exception of China, all major Asian states, though their economies are increasingly integrated within Asia, are tacking hard across the Pacific toward the United

States for their security.

So much for the new East Asian community of which many in Asia have dreamed. What explains the change? Put bluntly, Economic Asia and Security Asia have become increasingly irreconcilable. But where Economic Asia was winning the contest in the decade and a half after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, Security Asia has begun to overwhelm those recent trends.

Indeed, so powerful was the rise of Economic Asia that it had challenged even the longstanding American role in the region. Intra-Asian trade and investment took off fast with the end of the Cold War, but Asia’s growing web of economic and political connections was particularly reinforced by the 1997-98 financial crisis, which hit hardest in places like Indonesia and Thailand. Across the region, elites came to view the United States as arrogant and aloof, and groped for their own solutions to regional economic challenges. The United States, which bailed out Mexico in 1994, refused to bail out Thailand just three years later, fueling perceptions that it neglected Southeast Asia. To many in Asia, Washington appeared to be dictating clichéd solutions. And, in the ensuing years, preferential trade agreements, regionally based regulations and standards, and institutions created without American involvement advanced. These have threatened to marginalize the United States over time.

But after two years of nationalistic rhetoric over rocks and islets in the East and South China Seas, Security Asia has roared back. Rampant and competing 19th and 20th-century nationalisms have moved again to the fore as pathologies that seemed frozen in time raise the specter of renewed conflict. A recent study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies reports that defense spending in China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Taiwan has doubled in the past decade, reaching $224 billion last year. Asians have worked for decades to develop a pan-Asian identity and enhance their collective clout in the global system. But economic integration has thus far yielded no basis for collective or cooperative security in the Pacific. Instead, the world’s new center of economic gravity looks fragile and conflicted.

Politics Unbound?

Could Security Asia actually overwhelm, or even destroy, the economic gains that were beginning to pull the region away from its debilitating past? Some have argued that this is a temporary phenomenon — a cynical ploy by Asia’s politicians to build support at a time of domestic weakness.

But it is too easy to write off these recent developments as the product of domestic politics. Yes, China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, among others, are focused on internal economic or political developments. Seoul, for example, is in the midst of a presidential campaign. Japan’s governing party faces a stiff test, and probable defeat, at the hands of a resurgent Liberal Democratic Party next year. China is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade political succession, and, what is more, Beijing has hit the upper limit of its existing growth model, which is delivering diminishing returns and threatens to become a major political vulnerability for the government. Vietnam and others in Southeast Asia face domestic pressures to supercharge their economies and reinvigorate reforms.

Yet while it is true that popular chauvinism is a useful tactic for Asia’s beleaguered politicians, such tactics will yield significant costs and enduring damage. Nor are such passions easily turned on and off. Economic and political nationalism is deeply rooted in all Asian countries. It will survive and thrive even after these various political transitions are complete.

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