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Trade paints over South-East Asian simmering tensions

Shipping containers sit stacked among gantry cranes at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals in Hong Kong this week. China has intense economic relationships with countries all over the globe. Photo: Bloomberg

Shipping containers sit stacked among gantry cranes at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals in Hong Kong this week. China has intense economic relationships with countries all over the globe. Photo: Bloomberg

Published Nov 26, 2014


THE WORLD debate may be preoccupied with “hot” crises in the Middle East, Isis, Eastern Ukraine and fighting Ebola. Yet tensions in East Asia have not subsided. Even though the region has seen quite a remarkable level of peace ever since China’s war with Vietnam in 1978/79, there is a new uncertainty.

The major cause of past progress was the security guarantee provided by the US, coupled with China’s intent to “rise” peacefully. Another key stabilising factor has been the gradual economic integration among the countries of South-East Asia and in East Asia. Together, this has brought slow, but continuous accommodation of one another’s political interests and objectives across Asia.

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If there is talk now of rising tensions in East Asia and a growing apprehensiveness, then usually it is China which is seen as responsible. More precisely put, the tensions are seen as a consequence of China’s rise.

As things stand, it appears that whenever a neighbour of China acts in a way that may be interpreted in Beijing as an even minor provocation of China, China will assert itself robustly and change the overall situation to its advantage.

To give but one example, when the Philippine navy in May 2013 tried to expel Chinese fishermen from the Scarborough Shoal reef, 130 nautical miles from the Philippine coast (and 550 such miles from the Chinese coast), the Chinese navy intervened. Today, the reef is de facto in Chinese hands.

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It seems that the way in which China’s leaders regard the future role of their country in the region and the world has changed.

Both the “peaceful rise” rhetoric and statements made only ten years ago to express the intention that China’s rise will remain compatible with the interests of its partners seem to have made room for a new way of thinking.

This issue loomed large again in the background of the recently concluded Apec Summit. For all the official focus on economic co-operation, geopolitical and strategic issues always lurk large, even though they are not on the “official” agenda.

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While this is no surprise to Asians, what may surprise them is how much this is also a matter of global interest. The reason for that is twofold: First, looking ahead, Asia may eventually become the most important part of the global economy.

And second, China already has intense economic relationships all over the globe, including in Europe and the US. That’s why other nations outside of Asia are greatly concerned if China’s relationship with the rest of the continent remains unsettled.

One key question at this juncture is what the other countries in Asia can do to keep their relationship with the Chinese on a constructive footing and to do their part in securing the future prosperity of Asia. It is here that the European example and the importance of relying on trade relations as a key confidence-building measure may be of use. For real progress to be made, countries have to be able and willing to jump over the shadows of the past. That is no easy feat.

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However, strengthened trade relations have the advantage of incentivising countries in that critical regard. They offer up meaningful progress in people’s daily lives through greater economic integration across the entire region.

At a time when progress towards freer global trade at the multilateral level move, at best, at a glacial pace, bilateral and regional trade deals assume a bigger importance. And despite general concerns that this may lead to a fracturing of the global trade landscape, certainly with regard to Asia such agreements – whether bilateral, trilateral or multilateral – could turn into true progress.

Far beyond the “China factor” in Asia, quite a lot of nations across Asia have quite a loaded history when it comes to some of their neighbours. Trade agreements can be a useful lever to overcome such shadows of the past.

One particularly inspiring example in this regard – and one that ought to impart courage to other Asian countries with similarly fraught relationships to take similar steps – concerns the change in relations between South Korea and Vietnam. Fifty years ago, South Korean troops fought in Vietnam alongside the Americans, all in the name of checking the Iron Curtain.

In spite of that painful past, South Korea and Vietnam are now set to ink an FTA of their own by year’s end. Constructive steps like that show the way forward for all of Asia.

Volker Stanzel is former German ambassador to Japan and China, and former political director of the German Foreign Office. Copyright The Globalist, where this article first appeared. Follow The Globalist on Twitter: @theGlobalist

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