May 1, 2017 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

Diversity trumps 'Asian values'

The 'Asianist' idea of a collective East Asian cultural unity is withering

MALCOLM COOK

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was called "Father of Modernization."

Political and strategic policy differences between the democracies of Northeast and Southeast Asia are widening. In the era of globalization and social media, long-assumed cultural similarities between these two regions are not holding up. This is in sharp contrast with the intellectual consensus of 25 years ago, when the "Asian values" narrative was in full blossom, with Japanese, Singaporean and Malaysian leaders providing the fertilizer.

Then, culture was destiny, if not predestination. This primordial force was said by 'Asianists' to unite Northeast and Southeast Asian societies, and to separate them irrevocably from the West. A decade later, David Kang's seminal article "Getting Asia Wrong" debunked gloomy Western predictions of an arms race and damaging power politics in Asia, arguing that Asian states seemed content with the rise of China.

As a young and hopeful student, I arrived in Japan in 1993 to be told that due to my European ethnicity and Canadian upbringing, I could never truly understand Asian politics or international relations. Today, working in Singapore, I routinely face the same charge of intellectual "original sin." For proponents of Asian values, the Confucian embrace of hierarchy is the quintessential quality that differentiates Asia from the West -- to the benefit of Asia.

Familial analogies are frequently mobilized. Indonesia's President Suharto, in office from 1967 to 1998, was officially recognized as the "Father of Development" (Bapak Pembangunan). Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was Malaysia's "Father of Modernization" (Bapa Pemodenan). In 2007, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, serving as chair of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, welcomed the Chinese premier with the words: "We are very happy to have China as our 'Big Brother' in this region."

This proclaimed culture of deference provides leaders with more latitude than their Western counterparts, and more time to pursue their chosen uses of state power, for good or bad. In international relations, it translates into an acceptance of Chinese centrality and leadership. Not annoying the Middle Kingdom in return for Chinese benevolence is a central tenet of the strategy of smaller Asian countries.

The Philippines and Malaysia, neither of which are Confucian societies, both seem to be following these predetermined patterns. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, son of Malaysia's second prime minister, is well positioned to lead his ruling coalition, which has never lost an election, to another victory in the country's next election. This is despite his alleged involvement in a major scandal at 1MDB, a government-owned investment fund that is under investigation in the U.S., Switzerland and Singapore.

Strategically, Malaysia has taken a softly-softly approach to its maritime rights dispute with China in the South China Sea, and embraced China's leadership through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This is despite frequent incursions by Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels into Malaysia's exclusive economic zone.

Two out of five

The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte is a more extreme example. Politically, Duterte is conducting a bloody war on drugs that has led to the deaths of thousands and the arrest on questionable grounds of a former Secretary of Justice, Senator Leila de Lima. Duterte has admitted that only two of each five things he says are truthful, the other three being "foolishness." Yet, nine months into his term, Duterte's sky-high approval ratings persist and his supporters refer to him as father (tatay).

Strategically, Duterte has shifted Manila's approach to its maritime rights dispute with China nearly 180 degrees from that of his predecessor. Rather than leveraging a very favorable international tribunal upholding the Philippine case, Duterte has quipped that he might sell the contested land features to China, and suggested that if China built a railway on his home island he would stop talking about the dispute. He has thanked China for "loving" the Philippines and helping it survive. It is hard to fathom how his bow could be deeper.

However, recent political and strategic developments in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, all historically Confucian societies, undercut the idea of a harmonious East Asian cultural unity. South Korea has just impeached and dismissed former President Park Geun-hye, and then promptly arrested her for an alleged scandal much smaller than Malaysia's 1MDB. Park had earlier spent months facing single digit popularity ratings and mass demonstrations.

By November, six months into her term, more Taiwanese people disapproved of President Tsai Ing-wen's leadership than approved. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was forced to step down after less than a year in 2007 in the face of disastrous polling. Abe returned to office in 2012, but Northeast Asian democratic leaders face undeferential, querulous populations seeking rapid results.

These three countries also show little sign of accepting Chinese leadership. Japan, under governments from both the left and right, has sought for the last two decades to maintain U.S. strategic primacy in Asia and deter China. South Korea has allowed the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system that has made China incandescent with rage. Informal Chinese economic sanctions against South Korea have swayed the population against China rather than against their government.

In January 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party for the first time won both the presidency and a legislative majority in Taiwan, despite voters knowing from experience that this would worsen relations with China and possibly lead to informal Chinese sanctions, as it has.

At the end of the Cold War, Asianists rightfully challenged Western intellectual universalism and arrogance. A quarter-century later, Asianist claims about East Asian cultural unity and embrace of hierarchy are themselves under challenge -- and this time from within.

Asia's diversity trumps claims of cultural unity and uniqueness or universality. All observers -- Western, Asian or other -- are in the same intellectual fog. Rowing together to navigate the region's complexities is better than throwing some overboard along the way.

Malcolm Cook is a senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

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