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The fault lines that could shake Asia 
By Yu Bin

While much of Asia has been overwhelmed by the year-end tsunami, the outpouring of sympathy and assistance will eventually soothe the pain and destruction. What the tsunami may not be able to change, however, is the much deeper and stronger socio-economic-strategic undercurrents that are gathering momentum in Asia. As the year of the Monkey in 2004 ushered in the Rooster in 2005, the region is being torn by two different, if not opposing, forces. One is economic dynamics, which is largely natural, integrating and mutually beneficial, and conducive to social cohesion and political stability. The other is one of political-cultural engineering of identity change toward "normal states". This pursuit of symbolic goals, ironically, also is associated with greater political-military assertiveness. As a result, the specter of the past is again haunting the globe, as the region approaches the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Growth and stability in 2004
Asia in 2004 has been blessed by continuous economic growth and socio-political stability. Part of the reason is a steady worldwide economic upturn of 5% and healthy growth among the world's leading economies (4.4% for Japan, 4.3% for the United States, 2.2% for the European Union). Asia's developing nations are particularly impressive, registering an average rise of 7.8%, as against 4.6% for Latin America, 4.5% for Africa, and 6.6% for developing economies as a whole.

Regional integration is also at work. In late November 2004, a summit among 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China yielded an action plan to step up their political consultation, security dialogues, and economic cooperation. An ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (FTA) is also in the making to integrate 2 billion people into a $2.4 trillion FTA by 2010, rivaling the world's richest FTAs ,such as the EU and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

China's pro-active diplomacy is only the latest round of Asia's multilateralism, which will also prompt Japan and South Korea to accelerate their own pace of integration with ASEAN in the coming years. Already the ASEAN + 3 talks, which began in 1997 between ASEAN, Japan, China, and South Korea, have resulted in the deepening and expanding of relationships for Asian nations.

The absence of large-scale terrorist attacks in major Asian nations (such is the case of Madrid, Spain, and Beslan, Russia, in 2004) was also helpful. Perhaps more than in any other parts of the world, Asia is home to some of the world's leading religions including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto and Judaism. With the exception of Central Asian and the Mideastern parts of the region, civilization coexistence and exchanges, not their "clashes", have been the mainstream in Asia. Anti-terror remains part of the vocabulary for the Asian elite. By no means is it the only, nor the most important item on their agenda.

Last if not the least is China's sizzling economy (9%), which undoubtedly contributes to Asia's healthy performance. A quarter of the world's population going through a quarter of a century of sustained growth is no small matter for Asia's economic dynamics. As the No 1 manufacturer for shoes, cell phones, color TVs, digital cameras, bicycles, vitamin C, aspirin, and other products for the world market, China's growth potential has yet to be fully tapped. With a per capita gross national product (GDP) barely above $1,000 for 2004, the "Middle Kingdom" consumed 8% of the world's petroleum, 10% of its electricity, 19% aluminum, 20% copper, 31% coal, and a third of the world's steel.

China's "color-blind" devotion to substances
While the central kingdom's endless appetite for market and raw materials drives regional growth and integration, less noticed is the fact that China's rapid economic modernization is achieved by disregarding, at least partially, political symbols. What China has done is to ignore the "color" of the "cat" (black or white) as long as it catches mice (Deng Xiaoping's words). In policy terms, it means to focus on the substance of whatever works: socialism, capitalism, or both.

China's explosive growth, however, comes at a steep price. Twenty-five years into its pro-business and elite-oriented economic reforms, China has transformed itself from the world's most egalitarian state into the least egalitarian nation in the world - ironically, since it is still nominally under socialist symbolism. This transformation of substance occurs in the midst of the most massive urbanization and human migration in the world's history, involving hundreds of millions of people at any time in the past decade or two. As a result, Latin Americanization - meaning huge income disparity leading to socio-political instability - is haunting China's political and intellectual elite. The current leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao clearly favors a proper balance between efficiency (production) and equality (redistribution). It is unclear how the influx of Western commercialism and individualism will be balanced by a reviving Confucianism and a residual socialism.

China's intended "peaceful rise" and Asia's economic dynamism, however, may be seriously complicated in the next few years by two ongoing identity changes in East Asia, as both Japan and Taiwan are accelerating their pursuit of being "normal states", which is divisive and disorientating at home, and destabilizing and even dangerous abroad.

Japan as a "normal" state
Japan is finally climbing out of its "lost decade" of economic stagnation of the 1990s, only to redirect itself away from being a pure "economic animal" and to embarking upon unremitting pursuit of being a "normal state" aspiring to political-military potency. Much of this effort has focused on either trivializing or eradicating Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, so that Japan would be able to shed its pacifist image (imposed by the Americans) and to project its military beyond its borders. Meanwhile, Japan's media has saturated the public with the "getting tough" rhetoric, fashioned by its right-wingers and endorsed even by socialists and communists: rhetoric to impose economic sanctions against North Korea (not so easy); to end Japan's official development assistance (ODA) to China; to launch preemptive strikes against North Korea; to identify "enemies" and "threats" (China and North Korea) in its most recent "Defense Outline"; to rearm Japan even with nuclear weapons (see Ayako Doi, "Unforeseen Consequences: Japan's Emerging Nuclear Debate," PacNet Newsletter, #12, March 13, 2003, www.csis.org/pacfor/pac0312.htm); and to blame Asian nations for their displeasure with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the class-A war criminals are enshrined. He has since said he will not visit the shrine; the visits have provoked outrage from China and distressed the Japanese business community that sees the potential waning of China business.

The Yasukuni case, which is defined by Japan's ruling elite as a "cultural" issue, is particularly thorny in Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors. As a "normal" state, Japan has every right to choose collective amnesia: not to remember what happened between 1894-1945, when it fought all three continental powers of China, Russia, and the United States, as well as colonized Korea and Taiwan. Asians, however, may forgive, but not forget the consequences of Japan's war to "liberate" them from "white imperialists", even if the Americans may choose to forget the near perfect precision strike at Pearl Harbor long before the invention of computer/laser-guided munitions with the least "collateral" damage (only 68 civilians died), not to mention Japan's desperate but innovative Kamakazi suicide bombers, forerunners of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States. The unprecedented ascendance of Japanese militarism was capped in 1945 only with the combined forces of all three continental powers, plus nuclear weapons.

The memories and perceptions of Japan by its neighbors, however, may not count much these days, given the fact that Japan possesses the second-largest economy and second-largest military spending in the world. It is almost impossible now to hold the current generation of Japanese legally responsible for what their predecessors did to Asia in the past century, thanks to what Bruce Cumings depicts as the "soft peace" (exempting the Emperor and most wartime officials) after a "hard war" (using nuclear weapons) by the Americans (Cumings, Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century, Duke University Press, 1999). In contrast, the German state and its companies are still compensating victims of the Holocaust.

Even the US government agreed, as late as December 20, 2004, to settle a lawsuit filed by a group of elderly Hungarian Jews over the looting of their valuables by American soldiers during World War II ($10,000 for each of the 30,000 Hungarian Jews and their survivors, according to The New York Times, December 21, 2004). Yet Japan as a nation does have a moral responsibility, at a minimum, not to go back to the type of "normal" state it was in the past, before the Empire of the Sun was forced to become an "abnormal" pacifist nation. At the practical level, the growing nationalist beat in Japan's foreign policy goes directly against Japan's effort to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

In retrospect, Japan, as the only genuinely "pacifist" nation, has indeed done a great service to the rest of the world as well as to itself. It is simply not in the interests of Japan to switch back and forth between a "pacifist" mold and its opposite, even at a half-century interlude. A real normal state does not only have the capability of talking and waging war, but also of being willing and able to compromise and to keep the peace.

Taiwan says hello to a "normal" state
Even with the lingering, ominous and threatening North Korean nuclear crisis, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has yet to become a battle cry for all Japanese political elite and social groups to undertake military action, as was the case in the late 19th century when intervention in Korea was embraced by almost all sectors of the Japanese society, whether they were state-builders, dispossessed samurai, or popular rights and freedom activists (David Howell, "Visions of the Future in Meiji Japan," in Merle Goldman and Andrew Gordon, eds, Historical Perspectives on Contemporary East Asia, Harvard University Press, 2000, p114-5). Part of the reason is the functioning (and recent non-functioning) of the six-party talks since 2003. These are comprised of both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. The occasional talks have yet to yield any substantive results, but have so far served as a de facto crisis management device and multilateral security interface for all parties concerned.

The delicate balance of power and nerves in East Asia, however, may be easily ruptured by another ongoing case of identity change in East Asia. Since 2000, when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan won the presidential election, the island has undergone an identity change from creeping to galloping de-sinification. Long suppressed by the authoritarian Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT), which fled to Taiwan after its defeat by the communists on the mainland, the DPP, once in power, has made Taiwanization its mission, with a self-imposed tight schedule for constitutional revision in 2006 and formal statehood in 2008. Meanwhile, sweeping cultural revision and changes to depose Chinese elements are going full speed ahead in cross cultural, educational, social, political, business, and even military areas. Anything Chinese seems evil and has to go as soon as possible.

In an age when the rest of Asia is seizing the moment to engage China, Taiwan is perhaps the only one in Asia, and even the world, that is actively burning the China bridge. As a result, a combination of depression and frustration-induced passion and solipsism - the inability even to conceive another way of looking at the real world outside of one's own view - is producing a fateful drive toward its nominal statehood, regardless of the post-independence mess and how to live with an increasingly powerful mainland across the Taiwan Strait. Between substance and superficiality, Taiwan is sliding toward the latter, and may well drag with it the region's stability and prosperity. All this is being done in the name of democratizing Taiwan. The pro-independence governing DPP extremists on the island, however, forget that an independent Taiwan is unacceptable by any regime on the mainland, be it traditional, communist, or democratic.

Emerging fault-lines
It is still possible for all parties involved to reverse this trend toward the militarization of the Taiwan issue before it reaches its free-fall stage. Two geostrategic issues, however, are over the horizon and may negatively affect the current strategic calculus in Asia.

One is the emerging "fault-lines" between maritime (Japan, US, and Taiwan) and continental powers (China, Russia, and possibly India and the two Koreas). The year 2004 witnessed large-scale military exercises by both Russia and the United States. Russia's "Security-2004" exercise in February was the largest drill since 1982 and the US' "Summer Pulse-2004" between June and August involved 150,000 troops, 600 warplanes, and more than 50 warships, including seven of a total 12 aircraft carriers. While the Washington-Tokyo-Taipei axis, formal or informal, is hardening, the Beijing-Moscow-New Delhi connection remains at the level of brainstorming. Nonetheless, Russians and Chinese are getting ready to stage their largest-ever joint military exercises in 2005 in China's Manchuria bordering Korea, possibly involving Russia's long-range strategic bombers and nuclear submarines.

The fault-lines between Asia's maritime and continental powers are yet to be determined, given that none of the "continental" powers is willing to trade off its own relationship with the world's most powerful military-economic entity (US-Japan) for closer ties with the other major but still second-class powers. The region, however, is facing a geopolitical fact of life that two of Asia's major powers, China and Japan, are simultaneously on the rise at the onset of the 21st century. It is unprecedented that before the second half of the 19th century, Japan remained a peripheral state in a China-centered Confucian universe. After the Meiji reforms until the mid-20th century, the rise of Japan was first and foremost at the expense of China.

The current state of affairs is unique also because of the entirely opposite direction in China and Japan's identity transformations. On one hand, China, a former political-military state of the Cold War (the US and Soviet Union were two other political-military states), is fast becoming a trading state and the world's factory of consumer products. On the other hand, Japan, a trading state during the Cold War, is now rapidly moving into a political-military mold and beyond (to preemption and missile defense). Whatever the trajectory of China and Japan, both have become more powerful and more nationalistic (Eugene Matthews, "Japan's New Nationalism,"Foreign Affairs, November/December 2003). And, despite the broadening and deepening of their economic and social intercourse, their mutual perceptions are in the negative territory.

It remains to be seen if the interplay of go-economics, identity changes, and geostrategic moves in Asia will narrow or widen the "fault-line" in the new year, and if the two Asian powers will be able to coexist and to prolong the current movement of economic growth and political stability in Asia. The alternative, however, will unleash a tidal wave of nationalist fever and state power much larger and more powerful than the tsunami that devastated many nations around the India Ocean.

Yu Bin, PhD, is senior research associate of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies. He is a regular contributor to Comparative Connections of the Pacific Forum in Hawaii. His most recent books include Power of the Moment: America and the World After 9-11 (Beijing: New China Press, 2002) and Mao's Generals Remember Korea (University Press of Kansas, 2001).

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