The major cause of past progress was the security guarantee provided by the United States, coupled with China’s intent to rise “peacefully.” Another key stabilizing factor has been the gradual economic integration among the countries of Southeast Asia and in East Asia. Together, this has brought slow but continuous accommodation of one another’s political interests and objectives across Asia.
If there is talk now of rising tensions in East Asia and a growing apprehensiveness, then usually it is China that is seen as responsible. More precisely put, the tensions are seen as a consequence of China’s rise.
As things stand, it appears that whenever a neighbor acts in a way that may be interpreted in Beijing as an even minor provocation, China will assert itself robustly and change the overall situation to its advantage. To give but one example, when the Philippine navy tried in May 2013 to expel Chinese fishermen from the Scarborough Shoal reef, 130 nautical miles from the Philippine coast and 550 miles from the Chinese coast, China’s navy intervened. Today, the reef is de facto in Chinese hands.
It seems that the way in which China’s leaders regard the future role of their country in the region and the world has changed. Both the “peaceful rise” rhetoric and statements made only 10 years ago to express the intention that China’s rise will remain compatible with the interests of its partners seem to have made room for a new way of thinking.
This issue again loomed large in the background of the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. For all the official focus on economic cooperation, geopolitical and strategic issues always lurk, even though they are not on the “official” agenda.
While this is no surprise to Asians, what may surprise them is how much this is a matter also of global interest. The reason for that is twofold: First, looking ahead, Asia may eventually become the most important part of the global economy. And second, China already has intense economic relationships all over the globe, including with Europe and the United States. That’s why other nations outside of Asia are greatly concerned if China’s relationship with the rest of the continent remains unsettled.
One key question at this juncture is what the other countries in Asia can do to keep their relationship with the Chinese on a constructive footing and to do their part in securing the future prosperity of Asia.
It is here that the European example and the importance of relying on trade relations as a key confidence-building measure may be of use. For real progress to be made, countries have to be willing and able to jump over the shadows of the past. That is no easy feat.
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