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Asia, Uninterrupted

There are many ideas about how Asia can be re-imagined as a whole even though it is still coming to terms with colonial era map-making and the intellectual domination of the West. Can India, situated at the heart of Asia, promote connectivities and draw the Asian economies together?

By Ambassador Neelam Deo

Nov. 21 – The growth of many Asian economies in a continent that occupies 30% of the world’s landmass, has 60% of its people, mostly young, and already produces some 25% of global output, has been so rapid in the last 20 years that it has already been vested with the collective image of the “other” in the western gaze.

There are today many ideas floating around about how an economically vibrant Asia can follow the European model, be dominated by China, or continue to grow under the leadership of the U.S. “None of the above” may, however, be the best option as we try to imagine an Asia unencumbered by colonially-devised boundaries, geographical and intellectual.

The global impulse towards regional or continental entities is an implicit recognition that the construct of the nation-state is too limiting in this brave new world. But it could also be a circling of the wagons against the uncertainties unleashed by the power of information and communication technologies, and political assertion sometimes tinged with the yearning for encompassing religious identities.

On the face of it everything militates against the idea of an Asia in search of more capacious identity markers. This is especially the case when the Arab uprisings rumble on reordering West Asia, while the Israel-Palestine dispute festers, China is provoking all its neighbours militarily from Japan to India to the Philippines and Vietnam, the thinking of nuclear-armed North Korea remains incomprehensible, and trust is a very rare commodity in South Asia. Therefore, in imagining Asia’s collective future it might be encouraging to glance at the unpromising beginnings of some of the other continental groupings such as the African Union, ASEAN, and the European Union.

Last year, the Nobel Committee surprised everyone by awarding the Peace prize to the European Union, citing its role in making war between France and Germany unthinkable and promoting democracy, including by welcoming former Soviet bloc countries into its fold. Today’s 28-member giant with 68% intra-European trade had a humble beginning in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Committee involving only six countries – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, and West Germany. While the EU projects itself as the organisational and moral gold standard for regional aggregations, the fact is that the Europeans were in an armed-to-the-teeth standoff with the Soviet Union throughout the cold war, and have participated in some two dozen proxy wars in Africa and Asia since the end of the Second World War

Other associations like ASEAN (1967) were scoffed at as puny in their ambition even though it has grown from its original six to 10 members, incorporating its former rivals, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and even Myanmar, in the teeth of western opposition. ASEAN now conducts 25% of its trade among member countries. Meanwhile, it has either resolved or successfully tamped down hostilities between neighbours. Although unwillingly, ASEAN has, with dignity, become the first line of defence against a resurgent and newly-assertive China.

The Organisation of African Union (1963), which has become the 54-member African Union (AU), was also mocked as underwhelming in its possibilities even though it established and respected the important principle of avoiding war by accepting the patently ridiculous colonially-drawn borders. Although the continent has endured innumerable civil wars, often instigated or prolonged by outsiders, it has achieved 11% intra-AU trade. Enough is invested in the idea of a collective identity for the African Union to address issues as grave as the NATO intervention in Libya and the Islamist-generated civil war in Mali.

It helps to recall the unpromising beginnings of today’s success stories so as not to be discouraged by western disdain at new groupings like BRICS. Or in re-imagining Asia as a whole even though it is still coming to terms with colonial era map-making and the intellectual domination of the West. BRICS does not have the physical contiguity of the EU, but it does have a common purpose in challenging global institutions created and still managed for its own benefit by the West. The objectives of BRICS or an Asian Union are no more improbable than transatlantic trade agreements being negotiated by the U.S. with select European, Asian, and Latin American countries.

But that still leaves the question unanswered: what is Asia? Is it more than a geographical expression – this continent which incorporates West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia? Does it include Turkey and Russia, both of which have European and Asian geographies and conflicted souls? What about Australia, which now projects itself as Asian but was, till recently, an Anglo-Saxon outpost?

This question will be answered in the process of Asia finding its purpose in a world where post-Second World War powers manoeuvre to retain their privileges through continued control of the international levers of power. It is not necessary, and probably not even desirable, for Asians to aspire to an EU-style tight arrangement, now that so many perceive the Euro as the cause of the European crisis, a crisis deep enough to raise questions about the European identity itself.

The continuities that grow out of expanding economies, with their concomitant physical and increasingly virtual connectivity, create latecomer flexibilities that Asia can take advantage of. What might work better in our massive landmass, with its capacious civilizations, its religious creativity, and its ethnic diversity, may well be enabling people and services to move as freely as finance and capital already do.

Another challenge worth addressing forthrightly for the immense augmentation of the cultural and material wealth of our more diverse continent would be the inexorable, though at uneven speeds, feminisation of economies and, with a time lag, even societies, as more girls access education, determine family lifestyles, and attain a public profile. This will not happen by reverting to pre-colonial traditions of paternity but by assimilating the better practices of western cultures, which tend towards legalising gender parity.

Enriched by the religious, cultural, and economic interactions with our Asian neighbours, India, which sits at the heart of Asia’s landmass and astride the Indian Ocean, must now promote connectivities that expand trade and draw Asian economies together. We must also make intellectually feasible the steps needed to discard European-style nationalisms and shrink barriers, or as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said of the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, render borders irrelevant.

This article was originally published by Gateway House on November 15, 2013.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 2point6billion.com or Asia Briefing Ltd.

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