A wise man’s vision of Pax Asia Pacifica

by Ralph Cossa

HONOLULU — “Are the United States and East Asia ready for the creation of a ‘Pax Asia Pacifica’ as a logical successor to the ‘Pax Americana,’ which has provided peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region for decades?” This question was foremost on former Philippine President Fidel Ramos’ mind when he lectured on U.S.-China and East Asia Relations recently in Washington.

Ramos gave the inaugural “Ambassador L.W. ‘Bill’ and Jean Lane Lecture in Diplomacy” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, hosted by Pacific Forum CSIS. His remarks focused on the geopolitical realities of a rising China, a more self-confident and involved Japan, an emerging India and a “preoccupied” U.S. The time has come, he said, not to replace or discount the American role in East Asia but rather to share the burden in hopes of creating a more cohesive Asia-Pacific community.

While some in the U.S. have cautioned against a “Pan Asianism” vs. “Pan Pacificism” debate, Ramos believes that building a greater sense of East Asian identity would help and not hinder the broader Asia-Pacific grouping, which includes the U.S. He argued that the emerging East Asia community should not only be based upon “one vision, one identity, one community,” as called for by the ASEAN Experts and Eminent Persons Group — he serves as the Philippine representative to this informal advisory body — but also upon “one union,” to be defined over time.

He called the ASEAN-Plus-Three network (the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan, and South Korea) the “basic mechanism” upon which this sense of community will be built. Ramos also supports deeper U.S. involvement in the East Asia Summit, which will hold its second meeting this December in the Philippines, applauding the grouping’s inclusion of Australia, New Zealand, India and even Russia with the ASEAN-Plus-Three nations.

In his formal remarks, Ramos first focused on China’s “peaceful rise,” noting that the “rise” seems inevitable, but he said the “peaceful” part depends first on the leadership in Beijing. He then spoke on the ability of the U.S. and China’s neighbors to effectively manage and adjust to China’s re-emergence on the global leadership scene.

He argued that the most important strategic decision Washington will make in the next decade is neither about Iraq nor Iran nor North Korea, but about China. Similarly, the most important strategic decision that Beijing will make in the next decade is how to relate to the United States. Cooperation, not confrontation, is the preferred route. But this will require skilled diplomacy, especially in the management of the ongoing race for energy resources. A constructive Chinese role in creating a “Pax Asia Pacifica” would demonstrate its commitment to being the “responsible stakeholder” that Washington has challenged Beijing to become.

He encouraged Japan to play a more responsible role in the region as part of his “Pax Asia Pacifica” vision. Ramos expressed concern over growing tensions between Beijing and Tokyo, calling on both to focus on the future, not the past. It is time to “put World War II in the background,” he asserted. While the interests of the “comfort women” who suffered at the hands of the Japanese during World War II should not be neglected, the countries of East Asia should remember that Japan has been “our best ally” in terms of official development assistance consistently over the years.

Turning to Philippine domestic developments, Ramos reminded the audience of his longtime support for a parliamentary system that would be more responsive and readily accountable to the needs of the people and would help to better train and prepare the next generation of leaders. “Why should we risk another People Power Revolution?” he asked, asserting “as an old soldier, I am the first one that would say never again.”

He recounted, in very personal terms, how he dealt with the insurgency problem in the southern Philippines during his tenure as president.

Ramos addressed a wide range of issues during a free-wheeling question session and stayed on after the speech to shake hands and pose for pictures with nearly every one of the many Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in the audience. It is easy to understand why many today wish he would run again for president.

Absent that, today’s leadership, in Manila, in Washington and Beijing, and in other East Asia capitals, would benefit greatly by listening to his wise counsel.