Asia rising, Asia falling?
July-September 2017
By: Andrew Phelan

Meanwhile, the fastest, largest-scale industrialization and urbanization in human history has come at a terrible cost. The lack of enforcement of laws affects many sectors, for example health care and environmental protection. Visiting China’s megacities, especially in winter and spring, is like shifting back to black-and-white television. In January and February of 2013, the term “airpocalypse” was coined to describe air that, especially in northern China, had reached levels where the particulate matter was 50 to 60 times the World Health Organization’s recommended levels. Air and water quality are having a devastating effect on the health of China’s population. Of course, Beijing is both well aware of this and afraid of the social fallout it can bring, and is investing in solar and renewable energies. But the question remains: is it too little, too late and will China’s government have the political will to cut back polluting energy and industries at risk of lower economic growth, rising unemployment and social instability?

While China deserves credit for its reforms and opening up, it is a regime that has no tolerance for dissent. Those that oppose China within its borders are crushed or “disappeared.” Lost in the noise of Brexit in a Western media that remains light when it comes to giving Asia much airtime or providing really nuanced analysis, the former Canadian politician David Kilgour launched the 500-page “Bloody Harvest” report. In China, there is a lucrative trade in selling the organs of executed prisoners for high prices to desperate patients. China’s brutal suppression of religious groups and the Falun Gong movement also hardly wins friends in the West, not that it seems to bother it that much.

Let’s touch on the following three of Auslin’s five risk factors that are closely tied: lack of political community, unfinished political revolutions and the threat of war. It’s the unfinished revolutions or historical baggage that have led to the lack of political community and an ever-increasing threat of war.

When speaking of baggage, let’s start with Northeast Asia. It doesn’t help that the fathers of the current leaders of Japan, South Korea (prior to President Park’s impeachment) and China were all bitter enemies during World War II and the post-war era. You can imagine what those fathers might have passed on to their children around the dinner table. Unlike Germany, Japan has not done a great job of coming to terms with its brutal imperialist past, to which China (I was a graduate student in Nanjing in the 1990s) and South Korea are highly sensitive. The end of World War II was followed by struggles for independence. Having thrown off the shackles of either Western colonial rule or Japanese domination, so began the task of nation-building. The Indo-Pacific overall gets a passing grade on the back of economic growth, but the picture in India and Southeast Asia is decidedly patchier.

With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), we can cover both unfinished revolutions and a lack of community. Most Asean summits are nothing short of embarrassing photo opportunities, although at least leaders are getting together and talking, which is better than nothing. Asean requires consensus among all its members and avoids legally binding agreements. Getting consensus has proved impossible.

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