China is rising — fast and furious. So why can’t the rest of Asia get its act together?

By Rowan Callick

Over the past decade, East Asian countries have surprised observers with their eagerness to work together. After all, this is a region where ancient (and not-so-ancient) hatreds run deep. But observers shouldn’t get their hopes up: Modern rivalries and historical baggage still stand in the way of transforming these arrangements into genuine regional cooperation.

On paper, progress appears to be occurring rapidly. In 2010, China, Australia, and New Zealand implemented free trade arrangements with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), providing preferential access to each others’ markets. China, Japan and South Korea are negotiating a free trade agreement. Even erstwhile enemies China and Taiwan entered into an economic agreement that reduces trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas on both sides: trade between Taiwan and China reached $128 billion in 2011, a 13 percent increase from the previous year, when the agreement went into effect.

But East Asia’s patchwork of economic alliances is weighed down by history and hobbled by ineffective security arrangements. The region’s three biggest flashpoints stretch back decades, if not centuries, and are like volcanoes — mostly dormant but occasionally deadly. Besides the French, U.S., and Chinese wars with Vietnam, the last full-on slugfest was the Korean War, which ended almost six decades ago. But its repercussions linger until the present day: North Korea and the United States never signed a peace treaty and technically remain at war. Similarly, Imperial Japan’s invasion of China, Korea, Taiwan, and practically all of Southeast Asia was the greatest cause of upheaval in 20th century Asia. World War II also remains far more politically explosive in Asia than it does in the United States — as the July torpedoing of a South Korean-Japan military pact because of lingering anti-Japanese sentiment shows. Read more…

Rowan Callick is Asia Pacific editor of The Australian.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on August 22, 2012.


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