Friday, June 18, 2004

PROJECTING THE NEW ASIA

ASIA PACIFIC
Its Role in the New World Disorder
Michael S. Dobbs-Higginson

AS the 20th century draws to a close, the Asia-Pacific region is establishing itself as a leading economic powerhouse. Half a millennium ago, the world's economic centre shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Today, it has moved again; this time to the Asia-Pacific region.

Asia Pacific: Its Role in the New World Disorder provides a contemporary insight into a much misunderstood region. The Asia-Pacific region, according to M.S. Dobbs-Higginson, includes China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Brunei, Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, and excludes Canada, the United States, Mexico and Latin America.

With the passing of the Cold War and of the superpower rivalry since World War II, we are now grappling with "a completely new set of operating conditions that most people haven't really begun to comprehend the ramifications, either in political or, more importantly, in economic terms." The circumstances facing the region in the 1990s and beyond will be different from those encountered in the past. The region must therefore respond and adapt to changing circumstances by embracing new and innovative measures.

Basing his views on the history, culture and politics, rather than on the economics, of the countries in the region, Dobbs-Higginson colours them with his Buddhist philosophy of balance. He sees the world "in terms of whether or not it is balance .... Everything one does, or the world does, affects and is also affected by whether the world, and oneself within it, is in a state of balance or not. Unless one understands oneself within oneself, oneself within the world, and then the world around one, how can one possibly achieve this balance in order to live (and work) effectively? Without proper balance, considerable energy needs to be used either to compensate for such imbalance or to attempt to achieve such balance .... with proper balance, considerable energy is freed up and can be used productively for achieving other, more rewarding, internal and external goals of both a spiritual and worldly nature."

Dobbs-Higginson provides an historical overview of each country's business culture. He intertwines anecdotal asides with bold analyses of the political and social developments over the recent years, and outlining each country's strengths and weaknesses. Besides developing a detailed argument on how and why the countries of the region should come together to create a regional forum, he alludes to the reasons each country would benefit from supporting such a forum and the consequences of not doing so. He believes that Southeast Asian countries, especially Asean countries, will play a catalytic role in uniting the region in the future.

With the end of communism and the fading away of opposing ideologies, and increased communication amongst countries within the region, opportunities for co-operation have become wider. Dobbs-Higginson demonstrates how much each country can benefit by participating in a union with the rest of the region. The best way for Asia to present a common voice and be heard in the world on matters related to trade, security and human-rights issues is to construct a structure similar to that of the European Union. "Trade liberalisation, essential though it is, is not enough in itself ... There must be some other political dynamics as well. There should be fundamental cooperation in regional security, but also in many other fields. Asia Pacific needs permanent institutions to guarantee the future: a rotating presidency, perhaps some form of parliament, a council of ministers, a secretariat, and a structure for dealing with legal disputes." These structures could emanate from ASEAN, which he believes is the region's most mature political organisation.

Dobbs-Higginson reiterates that Asia could forge this integration because of two distinct reasons: growing economic linkages, especially intra-regional trade, and common cultural heritage. Though Asia is divided by language, religion, culture, belief and past animosity, it is nevertheless united by common historical experiences and shared values and social institutions. Such differences may not be as profound, but they nevertheless exist. Differences should be grounds for unity more than divisiveness: "... the countries in this area are too diverse, too hostile to one another, and too geographically separated ever to come together as a coherent regional force. However, it is not often recognised that far from being divided, the region's peoples have benefited from a gradual blending of ethnic groups over the last two millenniums .... Despite their variety, the religions and other philosophical beliefs of Asia Pacific share the same ideas of kinship, discipline, tolerance, and death .... Although there still remain significant barriers of understanding and there are many different national objectives, far less now divides Asia Pacific than ever before." He identifies these changes and suggests how remaining barriers are eroding in such a way that some of these national objectives have or will become common ones soon.

Dobbs-Higginson does not fall short when it comes to argumentation and recommendations; not only does he raise crucial questions, he also thinks them through thoroughly. A more contemporary analysis of the Asia-Pacific region couldn't have come at a better time than now, when economic prowess, not military might, are the determinants of national strength.

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