Asia is losing its cool. Its cool consensus, to be exact.
The continent of the Middle Kingdom and the Middle Way can’t find the middle ground these days. From Thailand’s red and yellow factions to the choppy blue waters of the East and South China Seas, compromise is more imperative, yet more elusive.
Asian politicians and governments once prided themselves in building consensus and avoiding Western-style confrontation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was born by downplaying age-old animosities and fears for the locked summit arms and bunched rice stalks of unity.
Giants China and Japan learned not to let troublesome islands obstruct trade and investment. Even Taiwan, for all its frustrations and worries over the mainland, set them aside and allowed commerce, capital, and citizens gush across the strait where Beijing’s missiles and Washington’s carriers rattled sabers just two decades ago.
At domestic level, democracy in different degrees displaced dictatorship in East Asia, tolerating rather than decimating dissenters. Starting in People Powered Philippines, government of, by and for the voters took hold in South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and belatedly Myanmar. While dominant-party rule in Malaysia and Singapore remained unbroken, their oppositions fared a bit better.
No more Mr. Nice Asian
But now, gloves are coming off. Bangkok’s eight years of protests finally prompted the generals to take over. Kuala Lumpur has again jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy, while autocrats in Beijing and Hanoi tighten screws on dissent on the street and online.
Turning abroad, decades of warming ties between Manila and Beijing, punctuated by a joint seismic survey in disputed waters by their state oil companies and Hanoi’s, has chilled into island faceoffs and a Philippine lawsuit at the U.N. Then there are China’s air defense identification zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diayutai islands, and its billion-dollar oil rig near the Paracels. Fishing boats are now pawns in the high-seas chess.
Even Asean, that paragon of consensus building, failed to forge one in its April 2013 summit, issuing no communique for the first time since its founding in 1967. And while Manila may be forging peace with Muslim separatists, its new agreement bringing in more US naval and air power cannot but spur the PLA Navy to match the American buildup with bigger fleets and facilities near the Philippines, plus missile batteries aimed at military bases opened to Uncle Sam.
Nationalism divides nations
Why have Asians seemingly forgotten the art of Asian compromise?
Blame nationalism, for starters. From Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Peace Constitution redux, to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Crimea grab and the Hindu revival behind India’s new PM Narendra Modi, global leaders are flying the flag to woo and energize their masses.
Nationalist aspirations have also gained a sense of global destiny, with the economically stagnant West seemingly set to yield geopolitical dominance. The patriotic fire grows more intense with the Internet amplifying, accelerating and disseminating the once marginal voices of extremists, plus opposition and dissident groups also playing the patriotic card to decry rulers and wrap themselves in national colors.
Thus, governments once willing to meet halfway for unity, now bristle at one another to impress the flag-waving gallery, especially where affluence and democracy are spreading, along with heftier defense budgets.
Further roiling the regional climate are more assertive moves by the usual hegemony suspects. With China set for global superpowerdom, the United States is rebuilding alliances, while Japan aims to be more assertive with Premier Abe’s rereading of the charter to allow military action in defense of allies. India, for its part, talked about sending its navy to defend South China Sea oil ventures with the Vietnamese, which may buy its BrahMos anti-ship missile.
All that makes the region more volatile and complex, and its countries more wary and touchy. No wonder Asian arms sales and military spending are up. And when generals have more guns, tanks, ships and planes in their arsenal, quite a number are itching to show their mettle with their metal.
Haves, have-nots and have-nothing-to-lose
At the domestic level, affluence, urbanization, and social communications have intensified political activity and sentiment. The well-off and well-educated do not blindly accept authority. Social media and burgeoning cities have made mass protests and nationalist fervor easier and quicker to ignite.
Hence, rulers are more keen to suppress dissent before it surges and engulfs them — just ask the Thai generals. On the other side, opposition, dissident and public interest groups enjoy greater influence, and are pumped up by louder and more widespread echoes of like-minded rhetoric.
And perennial issues like corruption and misgovernance have greater costs and harm more people than ever, thanks to surging economies and populations. Not to mention being more widely known, if not in print, definitely online.
A further wrench giving confrontation many more turns is the ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots. In both booms and busts, the richest nano-percent have consistently garnered more national and global wealth, often through unfair, if not unlawful means, while the poor sink deeper into debt, destitution and desperation. These growing ranks of have-nothing-to-lose will not yield an inch.
We can’t keep seething like this. Asian prosperity was built on stable government and regional peace, not rabble rousing and guns blazing. Compromise and consensus are the only way for everyone to win. Forget that, and everybody loses, just like that epitome of unyielding totalitarian ultranationalism, North Korea.
Yes, Asians must air their views while listening to one another, so that harmony comes not with pains unspoken, but with interests understood. But there must be the indispensable give-and-take, not winner-takes-all. And the bigger, wealthier and more powerful can and should give more.
In an increasingly fractious and complex world, that’s still the Asian way forward.