Continent and Subcontinent

The problem of conceptualising Asian-ness is that it is not a question of finding similarities, but of envisioning the coexistence of diversities.

All one, perhaps –
bell, mountain, tree
and the steady cicada vibrato
and little white dog
and quiet artiste-priest, carver of Noh masks
fashioning a bamboo crutch for the ancient peach tree
symbol of strength, symbol of concern.
– Stanza of a poem in a Zen temple in 
Kyoto, Japan

Artwork: Bilash Rai

The 'Asian century' incorporates the belief that, if certain demographic and economic trends persist, the 21st century will be dominated by Asian politics and culture. But given the recent global financial crisis and the prevalent geopolitical culture throughout the continent, it looks unlikely that this idea will come true, at least in the near future. Moreover, contemporary Asian culture is much more integrated with Western values than ever before – the educated elite in many countries in Asia have long considered themselves to be non-resident citizens of the United States, many having attended US universities and many more with relatives or friends there. This feeling of being American in the mind yet 'national' in behaviour is particularly strong among the upper-middle classes in Southasia.

In India, except for the segment that is still Bharat, it has become fashionable to be identified with characteristics considered to be uniquely American. Interpretations of what exactly those attributes are differ considerably in detail, but an element of arrogant unilateralism is common to all versions of Americanism. 'Hot pursuit' is a popular concept, particularly among the stalwarts of the Bharatiya Janata Party; and Narendra Modi perhaps dreams of doing a 'Bush in Baghdad' sequel on the western front, once he becomes the premier of Aryavarta. If Manmohan Singh had his way, farmers would be allowed to continue to commit suicide, while diverting funds from agriculture to 'prestigious' projects – expressways to every village, manned missions to the moon, bigger intercontinental missiles, nuclear power plants in every district, and the abomination of 'river linking'.

The nuclear deals that New Delhi has signed with the Russians, French and Americans clear the way for India to become the world's largest market for nuclear technology. Perhaps this prospect appeared too mouth-watering for Japan to continue clinging to its post-World War II notion of imagining a nuclear-free world. One of the finest principled and continuous stands by any government in the modern era is thus in the process of being dismantled. The security pact signed on 22 October 2008 between New Delhi and Tokyo – to hold military exercises, police the Indian Ocean and conduct military exchanges on fighting terrorism – gives moral legitimacy to the immorality of a further nuclearisation of Asia and beyond. This innocuous-looking accord has another unsaid but widely understood dimension: India-Japan security cooperation for the containment of China, a strategy that will prolong the US's global domination rather than facilitating the emergence of an Asian century.

It seems that the fear of the resurgence of China has strengthened the resolve of the ruling elite in Asia to be more 'American' in the mind. The dynamism of the mainland, the tenacity of Taiwan, the vitality of Hong Kong, the chutzpah of Singapore and the combined influence of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia – collectively these send a shiver down the spines of insecure governments elsewhere. Instinctively, they rush closer to the US. That must have been why Asian leaders at the recent G20 Summit declined British and French proposals to build a new financial architecture for the 21st century. Taro Aso, Japan's incumbent prime minister, instead promised to prop up the International Monetary Fund, to the tune of some USD 100 billion.

Missionaries, mercenaries
Amartya Sen dismisses the concept of Asia as a single unit, suggesting that this is simply a vain generality resulting from a Eurocentric understanding of the world. The argument that there are many subcontinents in the Asian continent has its strength. (Himal once did an entire cover titled "There is no Asia", and proffered various arguments.) To begin with, Asia is too vast to be one: it is home to nearly 60 percent of the world's population, and is too diverse to be uniform. Also, Asian civilisations evolved without confronting each other decisively, and managed to retain their distinctive characteristics. It is extremely difficult to make an instinctively reticent Chinese person talk on a subject in which he has little interest, but it is impossible to stop an argumentative Indian from holding forth about things that he knows little about.

Crusaders and jihadis did not reach the Asian mainland – Christianity and Islam in Asia owe more to the missionaries of charities than to the mercenaries of faith. The result is that even 'one book, one prophet' religions failed to have any homogenising effect on the continent. The Wahabi exclusivism, based on the Arabic interpretation of the Quran and Hadith, is a latter-day phenomenon. It owes as much to petro-dollar passion as to the Cold War policy of pitting rightwing religious extremism against leftwing political radicalism. For instance, despite commonality of religion, Indonesian Muslims have more in common with Malays in the region than with Iraqis further west.

Supposedly pan-Asian Buddhism has local colour everywhere, apart from its inseparability from Shinto in Japan or Hinduism in the Himalaya. In the grossly simplified generalisation of Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, the West is Christian and the Arab world Muslim; but no clear categorisation is possible for East Asia, let alone for the entire Asian continent. Therein lays the rationale of envisioning an Asian identity: it has to be based on diversities within the unity of belonging to a shared space, and it has to stand up against the process of homogenisation institutionalised by the settlements of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. These settlements defined Protestants and Catholics as equal before the law, and gave Calvinism legal recognition; at the same time, they failed to foresee the conflicts that would ensue if political boundaries were to trace religious divisions.

The problem of conceptualising Asian-ness is thus not a question of finding similarities, but of envisioning the coexistence of diversities. In a sense, it has to be opposed to the uniformity of McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Domino's, Subway, Coke and Pepsi. It has to be different from the ideal of everyone driving similar cars, listening to similar music on identical players, and using the same computer operating system. It has to grow away from the fixation that modernisation means Americanisation. The idea of an Asia that can replace US hegemony is thus as much a philosophical question as a geostrategic one.

China and India can certainly contribute to the evolution of the Asian identity, but it is Japan that is better positioned to take the lead, due to its unique experience of straddling the separate worlds of East and West with equal felicity. Unfortunately, Japan's elites have suffered from a type of Stockholm syndrome since the days of US occupation. Graduates of Tokyo University, who lead Japan's bureaucracy, business sector and politics, prefer to compete with Israel to be the offshore dominion, if not an all-out 51st united state. That could be why the US has been so successful in sabotaging the emergence of an Asian century.

The unification of Korea is a matter of when rather than if. The Chinese will eventually have enough clout to engineer rapprochement between the estranged parts of the Korean peninsula. Through the subtle yet firm interventions in the domestic politics of ASEAN, the Chinese have begun to sway 'client' states away from their distant patron. Predictably, China's moves in Thailand and Burma have triggered alarm bells in Washington, and its manoeuvres in West and Central Asia carry the potential of challenging US supremacy in the region. Since the US can do little to directly confront the Chinese, it has chosen India to be its mediator in Asia. Slowly but surely, a US-Israel-India axis to police West Asia, and a US-Japan-India alliance to discipline East Asia has begun to crystallise. In both exercises, Indians will probably be required to do the dirty work for the privilege of being associated with the global sheriff.

The ramifications of the US cooptation of India are dire for both the incipient Southasian unity and peace in the larger Asia. With China making all the right noises in public but plotting resistance strategies in private, the emergence of Asia as the decisive player of the 21st century looks remote. Southasia will probably become a theatre of contest for influence. A resurgence of Asia and peace in the region can both only be envisioned if Japan opts to play a role that befits the second-largest economy in the world – something that appears highly unlikely, even as we wish it were so.

~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.

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