GREAT EXPECTATIONS

So Far, It Just Isn't Looking Like Asia's Century

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By Joshua Kurlantzick
Sunday, September 7, 2008

So much for the Asian century. The Thais are bickering with themselves, and when they're done doing that, they'll bicker with the Cambodians -- again. China may be Japan's biggest trading partner, but they hate each other anyway. Malaysia and Indonesia? Two countries divided by the same language.

I've spent a lot of time in Asia over the past decade, as an expat and a traveler. From where I stand, the place is a geopolitical mess. Hogtied by nationalism and narrow self-interest, the countries of the East won't be banding together to replace the West as the seat of global power -- at least not anytime soon.

Asia's troubles have been on prominent display in recent weeks as anti-government demonstrations, fueled in part by anti-Cambodian nationalism, rocked Bangkok. Earlier this summer, Thailand and Cambodia moved onto war footing because of a dispute over a mountaintop temple -- not exactly a living example of the Beijing Olympics' motto: "One World, One Dream."

Of course, an Asian version of the European Union isn't out of reach, as many Asian leaders know. But today, the continent battles a kind of split personality. On the one hand, many cultural, economic and political trends suggest that Asian nations are becoming more integrated than ever before. But on the other, a virulent nationalism is spreading in the region, one that feeds on reinterpreted -- or even imaginary -- history to gin up hatred and push small-minded agendas.

Elites in Asia clearly understand the benefits of integration, and businesses and officials together are promoting the trend. In 2004, China replaced the United States as Japan's biggest trading partner. Chinese yearly trade with the ten Southeast Asian nations will likely surpass $200 billion by 2010.With the expansion of satellite television, Asian airlines and regional hiring by Asian conglomerates, businesspeople watch the same news, cool their heels together in a slew of space-age international airports and mingle at cocktail parties and pan-Asian business summits. Fads that start in Tokyo or Seoul, such as drinking red wine or dying hair blond, sweep through the region. At summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), I've seen packs of diplomats gathered at bars swapping stories in fluent English about their hijinks during graduate school at Johns Hopkins University.

Despite all that love, most of the region's multilateral institutions do little more than meet for the sake of meeting. In Cambodia and Laos, local officials and fishermen despair that dams built by China on the upper portion of the Mekong River are blocking water flow -- and ravaging fishing in the southern stretch of that river that snakes through their countries. "But when we . . . try to bring this up at ASEAN meetings," Sokhem Pech, a leading Cambodian Mekong expert, told me, "no one even wants to talk about it." The committee officially monitoring the Mekong, which doesn't include China, is so feeble that it rarely speaks out on the issue.

The problem: Calls to nationalism and an obsession with sovereignty are drowning out calls for cooperation. The passage of time since World War II, when nationalism led to catastrophe, has allowed politicians to wield it more freely for short-term gain. "The Chinese are ignorant, so they are overjoyed," Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara quipped after China launched a manned spaceship in 2003. "That [spacecraft] was an outdated one. If Japan wanted to do it, we could do it in one year."

This sort of nationalism isn't the stuff of a few firebrands. Across the continent, populist politicians have scrubbed school textbooks, whether to minimize Japan's atrocities in South Korea and China during World War II or to erase the memory of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia -- perhaps because Prime Minister Hun Sen was an officer in the genocidal regime before he turned against it. Traveling to Cambodia, I meet teenagers who know practically nothing about what happened in their country in the 1970s. China, too, has whitewashed the memory of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 4, 1989. When a "Frontline" documentary crew went to Beijing University a few years ago and showed students the iconic 1989 photograph of the man who stopped a tank in its tracks, no one recognized it.

Politicians aren't the only ones embracing nationalism. In 2002, when Thailand was still recovering from its financial meltdown, government-backed filmmakers produced "The Legend of Suriyothai" to restore their country's wounded pride. One of the most expensive pictures in Thai history, it told the story of an ancient Thai queen who died fighting Burmese invaders -- and compounded Thais' hostility toward Burma, their neighbor to the west.

The Internet has further empowered Asian nationalists, allowing them to air their vitriol unchecked. On Chinese online bulletin boards such as the "Strong Nation Forum," which is run by the People's Daily, respondents compete for the most aggressive stance and ridicule Chinese leaders for compromising on issues such as relations with neighboring countries or Tibet or Taiwan. In Japan, the blogosphere helped spark sales of the manga comic book "Hating the Korean Wave." And in Indonesia, online writers helped fuel anger at neighboring Malaysia for the use of a supposedly Indonesian jingle in a tourism campaign and for the mistreatment of an Indonesian karate referee. These are petty grievances, but the Internet amplifies even the smallest outbursts, and reactions can be fierce. Just last week, Vietnam's foreign ministry called in China's ambassador to protest the appearance on Chinese Web sites of "invasion plans" that purported to detail the occupation of Vietnam by the People's Liberation Army.

Whenever I visit Asia, I meet young people who detest neighbors they barely know. "The Thais, all they care about is money. Nothing else," one Burmese acquaintance told me in Rangoon, despite the fact that he'd never actually been to Thailand. In one study taken last year by a leading Japanese nongovernmental organization, two-thirds of the Chinese polled said they had either a "very bad" or "relatively bad" impression of Japan.

As any politician can tell you, public opinion counts. In an open society such as the Philippines, rising anti-Chinese sentiment helped force the government in September 2007 to suspend China-funded projects valued at $4 billion. Even countries that have little history of animosity toward each other can be swept into a rage by the new nationalists. In 2006, after Singaporean state investment fund Temasek Holdings purchased Thai telecommunications giant Shin Corporation, Thai bloggers and online columnists condemned the deal, arguing that a Singaporean company would have control over sensitive Thai communications infrastructure. Thousands of Thais marched to Singapore's embassy in Bangkok -- a move that left urbane Singaporean diplomats, more accustomed to managing business deals than bullhorns, a bit flat-footed.

All these problems don't seem to have resonated in the United States, where an entire industry has developed around predictions that the Asian century will replace the American one. And maybe it will -- a few centuries from now.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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