'Asianism' and Asian Security

'Asianism' and Asian Security

Mini Teaser: When, in January 1995, China seized territory from the Philippines in the South China Sea, the states of East and Southeast Asia conspicuously balked at meeting the challenge that this peremptory action posed.

by Author(s): Gerald Segal

When, in January 1995, China seized territory from the Philippines in the South China Sea, the states of East and Southeast Asia conspicuously balked at meeting the challenge that this peremptory action posed. Despite the fact that it happened in a strategically sensitive area (a natural bottleneck between the Pacific and Indian Oceans) and that there are multiple competing regional claims to territory in that sea, there was no vigorous and determined response, no firm condemnation uttered by any of the region's leaders.

Predictably, Asian spokesmen and many non-Asian analysts alike sought to explain--and justify--this pale response as being somehow culturally determined. And, in these terms, the episode has significance beyond itself. For as their economies continue to achieve rapid growth and as their weight in the world increases, East Asians insist that they have found a new, distinctive--and by implication superior--Asian way of coping with global political and social issues, including those arising from security concerns.

Westerners who take an interest in such matters have become familiar with the kind of argument involved: "Sorry, we cannot possibly agree to such formal arms control [or whatever] as is preferred in the West; it is not the way we Asians handle security." In particular, they claim to be unique in seeing security as "comprehensive", as involving much more than mere military measures. And in general, they claim that their approach represents distinctive civilizational values and modes of behavior that set them apart from the rest of the world--and, particularly, from the cruder and blunter West.

What is one to make of such claims? Might they be true? If not, what is their origin, and what do they tell us about Asian anxieties and hopes?

It is true that many current political and economic practices in East Asia are distinctive. But to explain them in terms of some supposed cultural essence is, I shall argue, superficial, unconvincing, and--in the not-so-long run--dangerous. Much of what is claimed to be distinctive by dint of culture is not. Moreover, even if it is different, it is foolish for Asians or anyone else to presume that what is distinctive is, simply by virtue of that fact, superior and destined to succeed.

What is "Asia"?

There is one basic reason why Asian culture or civilization cannot tell us much about Asian security: Because, except in the simple geographical sense, there is little that can be identified convincingly as "Asian"--that is, something that is both common to all or most of the countries and societies of that region and different from what prevails outside the region (and particularly in the West). Metternich once famously described pre-unification Italy as little more than "a geographical expression." Despite many claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see why the same may not be said of contemporary Asia.

The area covered by the term is immense and the diversity within that area is great. The distance from, say, Tokyo to Jakarta is greater than that between London and Lagos or New York and Lima. London is closer to Beijing than is Sydney. When security is the subject under discussion, it is particularly relevant to keep such distances in mind.

Within this vast area there is little to support the assumption of cultural or civilizational unity and continuity. On the contrary, what one finds are great diversity and rapid change. Several of the world's great religions--Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, each one representing a distinctive ethical and metaphysical position--coexist there. The historical experience and social patterns of Asian states vary enormously, and there have been few if any of the great common experiences--the dominance of one religion, a unity of the sort imposed by Rome, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment--that mark the history of the West.

While the region as a whole has been experiencing very rapid economic development and modernization during recent decades, the rate at which the process has impacted on various parts of the region--and even on various parts of individual states like China and Indonesia--has varied widely. It is also true that what it has impacted upon has been very different from case to case. In his recent book, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, for example, Francis Fukuyama is concerned to emphasize the relevance of culture to economic performance. But in the process of doing so in the case of Asia, what he stresses are not the similarities between key aspects of Chinese and Japanese culture, but the differences. He even maintains that in some crucial respects the latter is closer to the United States than it is to Confucian society.

It would appear from all this that the cultural unity of "Asia"--the claim that this huge conglomeration of states and societies shares common values, outlooks, and modes of behavior--is largely a myth. But myths, of course, serve purposes and can create new realities. In the case of the elites of Asian countries, the most important purpose of the myth of "Asia" seems to be to facilitate the handling of two problems: their relationship to the West and their adaptation to modernity--two different but related tasks.

The nearest thing to a common historical-cultural experience that the countries of Asia have gone through has been the profound impact on them of the West, whether in the form of the outright colonization experienced by most of Southeast Asia, the division into spheres of influence experienced by China, or the controlled and selective adoption of Western technique and institutions engaged in by Japan. The very term "Asia" was imported from the West, and it was in Western eyes and minds that the region first existed as a single entity. It was from Western intellectuals and in reaction to Western power that Asians first learned to speak of "Asian unity" and "Asian opinion" and "the rise of Asia." It was also from the West that Asians acquired the concepts of nationalism, democracy, and liberty that they subsequently deployed to repudiate Western domination.

As the processes of economic development and modernization have gathered impressive momentum in the last decades of the century, the insistence on Asian authenticity and uniqueness has served another purpose: to provide some sense of stability, continuity, and reassurance in societies that are changing at a bewildering rate. In this sense, the myth may be taken as representing what Albert Camus once described as "the cry of men in the face of their destiny." The supposed "Asian" virtues of thrift, family values, and the work ethic are, after all, little different from what the Western world used to call "Victorian" values. Like the Victorians before them, East Asians are discovering that with modernization come, eventually, changes in values and habits once thought to be immutable; and like the Victorians they have therefore found it necessary to emphasize, laud, and idealize what they had previously taken for granted, but which they now realize is under threat.

The irony of Asian elites engaged in such defensivist assertions is underlined by the fact that they recite their litany of praise for things Asian while wearing clothes designed in nineteenth-century Europe and speaking the language of Anglo-Saxon tribes; that they write their articles and send their faxes about Asian cultural virtues in cities dominated by glass stump buildings, only occasionally topped by perfunctory pavilion roofs; that they discuss their uniqueness and unity while sipping a Glenfiddich or a French cognac, or while playing a game with a small, dimpled white ball, invented in the fog-bound dunes of the northeast Atlantic.

What is East Asian Security?

While it is relatively easy to debunk the notion of a unified and enduring Asian or East Asian culture, that does not mean that there are no distinctive features of East Asian security. As Fernand Braudel has demonstrated, while culture can change fairly rapidly, there are basic determinants of what he calls civilization that change only very slowly if at all. In such deeper structural aspects of East Asian conditions we may well discover something that is distinctive about East Asian security.

While geographic features may, in themselves, be as close to immutable as anything can be in international politics, their strategic significance can change rapidly because of technological innovation: railroads in the nineteenth century, aircraft and missiles in the twentieth century. Their strategic significance may also change as the dynamics of great power politics alter--and, as recent history testifies, this can happen with dramatic speed. For much of the Cold War, great historians and clever contemporary strategic analysts alike saw the geography of East Asian security as being primarily dominated by the continental contest between Russia and China. But as the Cold War faded in East Asia, other basic geographic features have reasserted their importance.

First is the obvious fact that much of what we call East Asia is not far from the Pacific Ocean. Just as it is sometimes useful to think of Russia as essentially a continental power, so it is useful to think of East Asia as concerned with maritime issues. Territorial disputes are likely to be primarily about islands and resources below the sea. Military concerns will probably hold out a large role for naval and air power, and relatively less for land forces.

Essay Types: Essay