Asia’s rapid economic growth, vast population and strategic geographical location are among the factors suggesting that the region should play a more prominent role in the international community. To cite but one example of Asia’s influence on global issues, it is predicted that the rapid growth of energy use in Asia will make this region the source of nearly half of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2010.
To help the world cope with such problems, Asian countries must raise their own political consciousness and prepare themselves to make a greater contribution to the international community. The creation of an Asian regional grouping and heightened regional consciousness could serve as effective catalysts for Asian countries to play a more positive and active role in world affairs.
A regional grouping of Asian countries, particularly those of East Asia, could serve to make China more conscious of its international responsibilities without feeling “pressured” by the rich industrial “West.” In a similar vein, discussing environmental issues within the region could make the Japanese feel more positive about China’s role in the region and the international community instead of regarding China as a threat or a nuisance.
In more practical terms, a Japan-China-Korea regional mechanism could respond more effectively to regional problems including international crimes and infectious diseases.
Historically, whenever Asia prospers, Western fears have seldom been far behind. Even today there are some symptoms that Asia is viewed as a threat by many Western countries (though at the same time there is increasing recognition that Asia presents great opportunities).
The persistence of such perceptions suggests that Europe and the United States need to adjust their outlook and policies to meet the Asian challenge. Asian countries should urge their European and North American counterparts to adapt to Asia’s newfound dynamism and to carry out their own domestic adjustment instead of shifting responsibility for economic adjustment solely onto Asian shoulders.
If such pressure were exerted by an individual Asian country, particularly China, it could lead to an emotion-fueled political reaction on the part of Europe or the U.S., since China has recently tended to gain more from the international trading system than it contributes. If, however, Asian countries, including Japan, unite their voices through regional dialogue and call for positive actions on the part of developed Western countries, they may find a more willing audience.
Asian responsibility, however, does not simply rest on functional cooperation in tackling regional problems. Asian economic dynamism, if it continues at its present pace, is almost certain to run into the global barriers of resource constraints. We cannot grow forever at the current rate. China’s international responsibility cannot be overemphasized in this regard.
Japan and South Korea, together with the U.S. and Europe, could measure the global impact of Chinese economic dynamism and work out ways in which the problems it causes could be effectively dealt with. The two East Asian countries could on this score be a bridge-layer between China and the rest of the world. And in this process regionalism in East Asia including China could play more important roles.
Asia has another global responsibility. Asia, which has benefited more than any other region from the free-trade system and is likely to benefit further in the years ahead, should contribute more actively to the task of supporting and strengthening the global trading system and free investment climate. Asian regional dialogue, initiatives, and regional free-trade agreements should be encouraged as a means of fulfilling this task, particularly because, as in South Korea, traditional mistrust of foreign investors seems to be on the rise in a number of nations.
Besides, a common regional initiative for free-trade agreements or economic cooperation arrangements could help East Asian countries alleviate domestic political difficulties that would be very hard to be overcome if the adjustment process is left to individual nations.
The significance of Asian regionalism does not only lie in the economic or trade field. With the era of open confrontation between East and West now just a memory, the Asia-Pacific region must not be saddled with a dangerous combination of balance-of-power politics, multiple arms races and superpower militarism. We must, therefore, strengthen multinational confidence-building among the region’s nations. This exercise can help to alleviate regional tensions that can otherwise be exacerbated due to territorial or historical disputes.
Regional security dialogue and cooperation have another significance, namely, to prevent the erosion of confidence in the roles that the U.S. plays on security matters in the region. This task is all the more important since, in the absence of intensified security dialogue among East Asian nations, the continued U.S. military presence in Asia risks being seen as a means of keeping Chinese expansionism or Japanese militarism in check.
Confidence building in Asia is also important with regard to the role of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. If other Asian countries perceive that the justification for the American military presence in Asia can only be found in its role as a counterweight to Japan and China, this outlook is likely to trigger a backlash in China and Japan.
In addition, there is a long-term subtle but pregnant implication in Asian regionalism. Through strengthening Asian consciousness and responsibility, Japan, where democracy is firmly established, and South Korea, where there is a strongly felt eagerness for such progress, can urge China gradually to share their political values of freedom and democracy for the benefit of all the people in East Asia including Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In brief, Asian regionalism, by reducing the risk of regional conflicts developing into serious confrontations that might jeopardize economic opportunities in Asia for the rest of the world, and by encouraging Asian nations to shoulder more international responsibility commensurate with their economic power, can and will contribute effectively to the stability and prosperity of the international community.
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