Asian nations need to talk and compromise on territorial disputes

Sonny Lo says they must not allow third parties to handle issues for them

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 8:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 1:35am

The continuing failure of Asian states to compromise over their territorial disputes and to tackle domestic squabbles through negotiations has raised a serious question about whether Asians can and will be able to manage their conflicts peacefully in the coming years.

There are clearly disturbing signs that point to a far more politically and internationally turbulent Asia than ever before.

First and foremost, the rapid rise of China has unsettled its Asian neighbours. The situation reflects not simply a perception problem on the part of some Asian states towards China's more assertive military and security policy, but also the difficulties of the US in being an effective middleman between China and its neighbours.

The Obama administration has made a mistake in siding with the Japanese government in Tokyo's territorial dispute with Beijing. This has aggravated Sino-Japanese relations, hastened the right-wing drift in Japanese security policy and plunged East Asia into a new cold war.

Even worse, recent American foreign policy has appeared to create an image, at least to Chinese security policymakers, that the pivot of the United States to Asia has already formed a chain of military containment that embraces not only Japan but also South Korea and the Philippines to deal with the so-called China threat.

The recent exchange of fire between North Korea and South Korea is another ominous sign pointing to the coming of a new cold war in Asia. So are the joint military exercises of Russia and China.

Second, the anti-Chinese sentiment that suddenly erupted in Vietnam has pointed to an increased possibility of an abrupt military skirmish between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea. The surge of anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam over the Chinese oil rig demonstrated not simply the mobilisation of some pro-Hanoi government organisations but also some degree of uncontrollable anger directed at China.

Third, the incessant struggles between the "red shirts" and "yellow shirts" in Thailand have been alarming many other Asians, as the Thai political activists put politics over social stability and economic prosperity. The recent military intervention should spur Asians and the Thais themselves to ponder seriously what has gone wrong in their so-called democratic politics. If Asian style of democracy stresses harmony and compromise, as the late Asian specialist Lucian Pye argued, then the people in Thailand must reflect calmly and critically on whether their political struggles have already destroyed the Asian virtues of political harmony and moderation.

What should and could Asians do? Leaders of Asian countries should evaluate their foreign policies critically and see whether they can resolve their territorial disputes through dialogue, without relying on both third-party intervention and a zero-sum game of politics.

At the same time, US policymakers must critically reassess their foreign policy of exacerbating such a view of politics.

Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian States should play a more active role in mediating the territorial disputes between China and Japan, between China and Vietnam and between China and the Philippines.

Finally, the leaders of Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines should not create an image, at least in the mind of the Chinese security policymakers, that they are forming a loose military coalition in assisting the US to contain China.

Asians should manage their own territorial disputes without relying on the intervention from the West. Otherwise, Asians themselves cannot achieve real independence in foreign policies.

Sonny Lo is professor and head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education