In the South China Sea, China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim the Paracel Islands, and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim the Spratly Islands. Chinese maps proclaimed ownership of both clusters via its “Nine-Dashed Line,” which, for good measure, encloses virtually the entire South China Sea. Beijing says it’s open to negotiations in principle, but it has spurned them in practice, dismissing rival claims and flaunting its naval power. Its message: might makes right.
Ultimately, the tub-thumping over maritime rocks is less about sea-lanes, fishing grounds and energy deposits than about fear, anger and suspicion—and as it was once in Europe, all these anxieties are rooted in the past.
True, East Asia’s dense trade ties demonstrate the gains from win-win interactions, but the region lacks counterparts to the EU or NATO that can promote joint problem solving and shared security. And despite East Asia’s many achievements (China’s spectacular growth rates; South Korea’s emergence as a world-class economic power and a democracy; Japan’s military minimalism) the region has multiple sources of instability and conflict.
The claim that a narrow nationalism has reemerged in Europe is weak on at least two counts. First, it exaggerates the extent to which national sentiment had been transcended by a pan-European identity and also lacks a comparative context. The run-up to the big decisions the EU has taken (the admission of Britain, the design and later reform of the common agricultural policy, and the introduction of the euro, for instance) revealed national divisions. Second, the claim that nationalism has made a comeback in Europe is devoid of comparative perspective. Are European countries more nationalistic now than they were prior to the emergence of the EU? Certainly not. Comparing Europe with Asia—and Europe’s past with its present—provides perspective at a time when pessimism about Europe prevails. For all of its present problems, "Europe" hasn’t failed. Nor, if one uses a reasonable standard, is failure likely.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).