The Sorry State of East Asia in the 21st Century
In what may be the final blow for Thomas Friedman’s absurd and rather boring theory known as “The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” the latest developments in the unfortunate island disputes in East Asia have the US and China once again gearing up for war with one another, or so we are told. The Obama Administration’s decision to send two B-52 bombers buzzing over China’s recently declared “Air Defense Identification Zone” or ADIZ that encompasses much of the coastal waters between Taiwan, the Korean peninsula and Japan, received much sensational attention. Unfortunately, most of it was pretty cringe-worthy.
There’s no denying the Manichean worldview of observers and officials on both sides that have apparently been longing for the battle of the century. From my Facebook feed came the announcement that what the US response was “Exactly the right move,” a proclamation to be cheered on by all sorts of “experts” on US-China disputes from somewhere in cyberspace. There were other posts and articles that declared that China was finally going to smack down the US for insubordination, being its chief lender and all.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Is this what a world plagued with myriad economic and ecological crises and the ramping up of extraction ostensibly to fuel the consumerism of our 7 billion fellow humans despite the warning signs from Mother Nature and the adverse tangible effects of human pollution really needs? Some explosive grand finale at a fireworks display? We can now sit back and watch more war games between our two economic and military super nations, war games that could conceivably become the real thing.
And all this just when you thought it was safe to celebrate the holidays by humming peace on earth, goodwill to men. The globalization of the Syrian civil war has just been prevented, only to be followed up by an historic deal struck between the US, its Western friends and Iran. Diplomacy was starting to look like a feasible alternative to the prospects of Armageddon.
Then China drew these lines in the sea and the US rode right over them in defiant disapproval of such lines, and then the internet went all abuzz with noise about who was to blame for this latest twist in the grand opera of the tiny uninhabited islands. The truth is that the US would not look kindly upon violations of their ADIZ, nor would Japan. However, the ADIZ that China drew up encompasses territory that the US re-administered to Japan after it returned a heavily-occupied Okinawa. Were these islands really Japan’s in the first place? Well, that all depends on where you start your historical analysis. Japan decided to include them when they were in the early stages of their imperial reign of terror. Okinawa’s culture has been brutally suppressed since Japan claimed ownership of it and the island’s inhabitants would never forget their former sovereignty. Meanwhile, the history of the US on the island is one nightmare upon the next. Unlike Taiwan and Korea, other territorial grabs by the imperial Japanese, Japan would eventually get Okinawa back and the Senkakus along with them. Legitimacy in this case is all a matter of perspective, and perspective is deeply colored by deep-seated mistrust and bad memories.
The idea of a comprehensive diplomatic solution to the various disputed islands in East Asia shouldn’t be seen as ridiculous. Instead, it should become the goal of every single government in the region and be encouraged by the United States as it maintains a safe distance. Of course there are real concerns about sovereignty, claims to natural resources, fears of vulnerability and expanding imperial forces, but more than all of this, there are projections of toughness. All too often, the US and its cheerleaders in the region portray China as just about to ready to swallow every country whole if it were not for the power of the US. Also, China seems to treat its neighbors as unworthy of too much respect. The concerns stemming from the region’s tragic history should be what motivate a relentless drive toward peaceful outcomes, yet the opposite appears to be happening.
The military hardware that countries spend enormous amounts on is just begging to be used and the leaders of these East Asian countries and the US seem eager to try out some of their newest (or in the case of the B-52 bombers, recycle some of their older) toys. One can get whiffs of the testosterone halfway across the planet. Hotheaded chest-thumping has subdued the diplomatic impulses for now and it’s hard not to be disturbed by this. When one stops and considers that over one-fifth of the world lives in East Asia and that there are seriously ugly and unresolved histories in the region, it becomes clear that we need diplomacy to be successful here as much as anywhere else. The US does not have a good track record when it comes to hot or cold wars. Isn’t it time for some consistent and wise diplomacy?
Returning to Friedman’s theory, it is baffling that countries so entirely dependent on one another economically in today’s global economy—China-Japan, Japan-China, China-US, US-China, the Philippines-China, etc.—would rather show off how tough they are than find ways to cooperate and lead humanity toward a brighter and more profitable future. Perhaps the leaders of these countries remember all too well the bogus notion that war creates major economic opportunities and figure that the worst-case scenario, the silver lining in the radioactive clouds, is not altogether that bad.
In this context, it is worth remembering that Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) just tore apart regions of the Philippines and the country needs as much help as possible to rebuild and try to figure out a way of protecting its population for the next massive storm that will inevitably come. It is also worth remembering that the Philippines is one of the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the world because of the wealthiest nations’ desires to conquer each other economically and have the greatest empire in history. The archipelago has been plagued by foreign intervention for hundreds of years. In the last hundred and fifteen alone, it has witnessed the horrors of war over and over again, invaded by the US, then by Japan and then again by the US, mass graves and massacres, the population terrorized by vicious foreigners as much as vicious storms. China’s absurdly meager initial offer of aid to the devastated Filipinos and their overwhelmed government after the typhoon earlier this month was undeniably cold. Oddly enough though, despite its deep and widespread poverty, the current government of the Philippines can somehow justify spending mounting millions in building up its military and gearing up for some terrible war with its increasingly powerful northern neighbor, China, egged on by its “friends” in Washington.
Our planet will clearly suffer worse physical and metaphorical storms and how we weather them depends on how we cooperate, communicate and how our leaders engage in diplomacy. It is unclear how China will respond to the bold insult from Washington but it will probably be a depressing response, unless one finds the battle of the titans script being laid out by sensational observers on either side as exciting.
Just as the Filipino government should not be wasting precious resources on preparing for war considering the tragic circumstances for many of its citizens, the same holds true for the US, China, and Japan. Somehow, it is impossible for the major players in the region to get together and discuss the nightmare scenario unfolding at Fukushima, or effectively discuss ways to mitigate the global crisis of pollution of our atmosphere and oceans caused by the rampant growth they all heartily endorse and design cleaner, less wasteful economies. How about the food and healthcare needs, deep poverty, and unemployment crises that make every day an impossible struggle for billions of humans across the world? This is what major power diplomacy in the twenty first century should be focused on, as opposed to disputed islands that somehow may destabilize an entire region because of its reactionary officials who have probably just watched too many bad movies and misconstrue what it means to be manly.
Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.