Worry about Asia, Not Europe

September 11, 2012 Topic: European UnionCurrencyEconomic Development Region: AsiaEurope

Worry about Asia, Not Europe

The EU faces tough times, but comparing it to East Asia demonstrates just how stable Europe really is.


Newspapers are now full of doom and gloom about Europe. A recent opinion piece in The New York Times even argued that “Europe”—the ideal of an integrated, prosperous, peaceable continent devoid of nationalism’s nasty variants—had failed outright.

Europe certainly has problems, among them massive unemployment, crushing debt, rising poverty, and resurgent xenophobic ideologies, parties and movements. But failure? Compared to what exactly?


Surely not the past. For five hundred years before 1945, Europe was the venue for horrific wars. World War I and II alone killed seventy million people. Extremist movements were ubiquitous. Noxious worldviews enabled horrors such as the Holocaust.

After World War II, thanks to the European Union (EU), Western Europe morphed into a community of democracy and peace. A common market emerged; later, labor and capital began to cross borders freely; then came the single currency. Joint decision making advanced on multiple fronts, with governments surrendering elements of sovereignty. And the EU has expanded eastward.

The prospect of Germany and France going to war, as they had in the past, soon became inconceivable and remains so. Ditto the revival of German militarism and imperialism; Germans embraced consensus-based multilateralism within the EU and NATO.

Europe’s welfare state was never perfect—what is?—and faces big challenges (especially given Europe’s aging population), but it bears no resemblance to the caricatures penned by some American pundits. It has provided millions a decent life and basic necessities. Taxes are high, but social services are extensive.

Is Europe a failure compared to other places? One way to answer this question is to look east—to the Far East, an economic dynamo.

The East’s Indelible Memories

This summer, Europe marked the end of World War II, as it always has, in unremarkable ways: with ceremonies, speeches honoring those who fought and lived and those who died fighting, visits to monuments, etc. The subtext of the commemoration continues to be: let’s recall the past so we never relive it.

In East Asia, by contrast, memories of the war still provoke anger and stoke regional animosities. Sixty-seven years after the end of World War II, the fury over “comfort women” (as the Japanese referred to South Korean females forcibly transported to Japan to provide sex to soldiers) and the 1937 Nanking Massacre persists. Bellicosity and indignant nationalism are omnipresent.

Consider what happened just last month. Two Japanese cabinet officials outraged China and South Korea by visiting the Yasukuni war memorial, a site that also holds the remains of men whom Chinese, Koreans and other East Asians consider war criminals. In China, attacked and brutally occupied by Japan from 1931–1945, and Korea, colonized by Japan from 1905–1945, the visit wasn’t considered an innocent pilgrimage, not least because it was not the first time Japanese officials had displayed bad timing in visiting Yasukuni. In a move that many in Japan saw as an insult, South Korea’s prime minister asked their emperor not to visit Seoul, observing that Japan had not apologized adequately for its misdeeds.

Japan’s “peace constitution” forsakes war, its defense budget hovers at a mere 1 percent of GDP, and its foreign policy reflects Japanese society’s pacifist, antimilitarist leanings. No matter. Japan remains suspect among its neighbors.

While no one in the region seriously anticipates another Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Imperial Japan’s euphemism for its empire in the 1940s, wounds from that period remain raw. That’s partly because Japan, unlike Germany, hasn’t fully confronted its past or shown what its neighbors consider sufficient and sincere contrition.

Another flashpoint in East Asia involves mini-archipelagos that fleck the Sea of Japan and the East and South China seas. In August, South Korea and Japan traded venom again over islands—basically a collection of rocks—in the Sea of Japan that the Koreans, who control them, call Dokdo, and the Japanese, who claim rightful ownership, know as Takeshima. When the South Korean president flew there on August 10, the Japanese were infuriated. Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea and lodged a formal protest. South Korea sent back Japan’s written complaint.

China and Japan have their own quarrel over the Diaoyutai (in Chinese) or Senkaku Islands (in Japanese). When Japanese activists or politicians visit these East China Sea islets or Chinese trawlers play chicken with the Japanese Coast Guard, tempers flare on both sides. The blogosphere sizzles; sabers rattle; jingoistic banners flutter. There was a replay in August. Furious crowds in China vandalized Japanese cars and restaurants after Japan detained and deported a Chinese group that landed on one of the islands. The news broke this month that the Japanese government was moving to buy the islands from their owner. Beijing, already incensed by reports this spring that Tokyo’s ultranationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, was planning to mobilize funds to that the city could acquire them, warned that it would defend its sovereign rights in the face of an illegal act.

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.

Continental Differences

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).