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Asian nationalism a dangerous development

Publication Date : 28-08-2012


The overlapping claim between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo or Takeshima islands is moving towards uncharted water. The international community thinks that, as the two most important allies of the US in the region, South Korea and Japan should know how to avoid creating an environment that augurs badly for strategic cooperation. That is not true. Worst of all, this tension is happening when their giant neighbour, China, is on a meteoric rise. In fact, if the quarrel continues unabated, it could further involve China, which has unwisely come out on the side of South Korea.

China also has territorial disputes with Japan and various countries in Southeast Asia. All of these disputes are bad signs that, whenever the domestic situation is not in good shape, nationalism can easily be utilised to stir up local support. Just look at the case of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, who just a few years ago was hailed as a hero in his country and the region. Now he has been transformed into a different kind of leader. He has become a lame-duck president and will be ineffective until elections at the end of the year.

As such, he is willing to do anything to shore up support and boost his image. Visiting Dokdo was an extremely bad decision, since he could have done other things that would yield better results. His action has caused a ripple effect throughout the region and could backfire on him and his party.

In the Asian context, nationalism has been used as an instrument to fight foreign aggression and domination. It is a powerful force in uniting a country to ward off external danger. However, when it is being used for a narrow political agenda, it is dangerous.

All Asian countries are good at this kind of nationalist manipulation. This helps explain why cooperation and future integration in Asia is often held hostage to the wheel of nationalism, whether it is silent or on alert. For years economic cooperation between Japan, China and South Korea was kept at a minimum due to the rise of domestic nationalist sentiments. Only in the past few years have they got closer to forging a free-trade area. Now all the talk about economic integration is being undone by the uncertainty of the future.

Asia is facing new challenges, with the US' growing enthusiasm to engage the region. If there is disunity among the Asian economic giants, robust growth will be impeded and there will be a long-term impact on economic cooperation. When China and Japan quarrelled over an incident in the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands two years ago, both sides lost because their trade volume was dramatically reduced. Luckily the two countries realised that, for their mutual benefit, they have to be on good terms.

Asean's economic wellbeing will also depend on cooperation among the three. They are the driving economic forces in the region and, in recent years, the world. As such, they must make greater efforts to ensure that nationalism does not rear its ugly head at this crucial moment.


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