United Nations

East Asian unity still a distant dream

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 May, 2006, 12:00am

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has a wish: that East Asia will cast off its war-time animosities and come to terms with its past, as Europe has. But while that may also be the deep-down desire of many of the region's two billion people, a huge effort by governments will have to take place before the dream can become a reality.

Mr Annan will express his wish to leaders during his five-nation East Asian tour, which began in South Korea yesterday, then moves on to Japan, China, Thailand and Vietnam. He will be politely listened to, views will be exchanged and the world's foremost diplomat will leave for his next destination - with little being achieved.

The reason is that Asia is not Europe. Ceremonies in Moscow last year marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war were an occasion for former combatants to celebrate partnerships. Through the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Group of Eight nations, among others, they have made amends, consigned memories to history and embarked on friendships that have led to prosperity for their people.

Older generations who suffered at the hands of invaders may still harbour resentment. But as Mr Annan observed to Japanese media last week on the eve of his Asian visit, Europe has clearly moved on - to its benefit.

That is not the case in Asia, as Japanese territorial disputes in recent months between China and South Korea and continuing rhetoric over a lack of war-time guilt clearly reveals. Competition for resources and nationalism in all three nations is drawing them further apart.

Resolution would, on the surface, seem to be as simple as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ending visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are remembered, and giving a proper apology for past military aggression that is acceptable to neighbouring governments. That successive Japanese leaders have not achieved closure shows how deep resentments run. Partnerships of the kind forged in Europe have failed to evolve beyond economic dealings.

Mr Annan ends his UN tenure at the end of the year and he would dearly like to leave a legacy. Reform of the UN, particularly the Security Council, has been a long-held desire, but like Asian unity, that is a far-off ideal. Plans for Japan, India, Germany and Brazil to be given permanent membership of the council are being stymied by animosities; China, a permanent member with veto rights, rejects Japan's joining, for example.

Ultimately, though, the UN seems the most likely avenue through which resentment can be dampened. There has yet to be an Asian secretary-general of the UN and the appointment of a figure from the region to succeed Mr Annan might be the unifying force that is needed to foster the co-operation that has so far been absent.