Creating ‘one’ Asia

SUN GE

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CAN East Asia be established as a community?

In the present phase, although an economic cooperation sphere like the EU has still to be established, the region certainly aims at creating a community by deliberating on selected aspects of economics or international politics. Though it is obvious that East Asia by itself is not the sole decision-maker in this context, but in the present international situation it is widely believed that this perhaps is a ripe time to give momentum to this process and materialize the potential of cooperation at various levels.

History is gathering momentum. As symbolized by the Six Nation Conference, East Asia cannot close any of the six ‘doors’. The countries of East Asia were unable to remain self-sufficient and the region has become a ‘community’ without noticing the change.

This, in turn, paradoxically presents the reality. From the fact that the concept of East Asia itself was a construct of the West, one can understand that the region has two inherent interactive processes – ‘external influence’ and ‘external orientation’ – that have been embedded in its identity. This does not, however, mean that the original nature of this region has not been preserved. These overlapping interactive processes have proved to be the driving force behind the effort of these nations to establish their identity rather as an ‘open’ and not a ‘closed community’.

Let us now consider the relatively independent ‘epistemological’ or ‘idea’ aspect, correlate it to the practical aspect and mull over the issue – what form will ‘East Asia’ eventually acquire through this process?

In contrast to the practical situation, the ‘epistemological’ or ‘idea’ aspect asserts that an ‘East Asian Community’ is a concept that is arrived at only after considerable imaginative thinking. This is also because although relative, ‘East Asia’ is seen by many to be a self-sufficient region, and until and unless there is resistance to unification, it is difficult to consider the concept as a debatable subject.

Due to the aforesaid reasons, the ‘unity’ of East Asia or Asia is rather sought at the level of thought or culture. However, in this region of various differences, contradictions and confrontations, such a ‘unity’ can be achieved only in certain abstract elements. Thus, thoughts and religions born in Asia – ‘Confucianism’ and ‘Buddhism’, to name a few – are considered the bearers of ‘unity’. An identical social structure is advocated on the basis of various anthropological analyses and the two religions are upheld as markers of distinct characteristics in comparison with American or European societies.

 

Although the effectiveness of this methodology has been partially acknowledged, its limitations too are evident. This is simply because no matter how much stress is laid on the fact that Asia has been ‘united’ in these abstract aspects, the credibility of that concept of ‘unity’ rapidly diminishes when concrete terms are taken into consideration. Let us take ‘Confucianism’ as one example. If an attempt is made to project Confucianism as a ‘common characteristic’ of East Asia, the first and foremost hurdle that one is bound to face is the fact that the respective characteristics of pre-modern Confucianism have not been elucidated. In fact, although Confucianism did exist in various countries of the region, it did not necessarily play an identical role in the social set-up of those countries.

If East Asia is crudely summarized as a ‘Confucian Society’, it will perhaps lead to the neglect of important problems of marginalized Confucianism, the form of a society that is not Confucianism-centric, complex internal splits within Confucian doctrine, among others. There is a risk of forcible simplification of the diversities in Asia which would make a fruitful debate impossible. On the contrary, precisely in order to avoid such a precarious situation, it can be argued that there is a demand to do away with this seemingly homogeneous precondition of ‘Confucianism’ itself.

 

In the present times, even as the impression of a simplified integration of Asia is being constantly created, there is a demand for clarifying the multiplicity that lies within that uniformity. However, this expression of multiplicity is certainly not to discredit the idea of oneness of Asia; if anything, it cannot stand independently without stating its unity. It would be rather apt to state that this kind of exercise is an indispensable process for redefining the concept of ‘oneness’.

Asia has an interesting destiny. In this region, self-consciousness is not born ‘naturally’ on its own, but appears only in a situation of violence or pressure. Within Asia, there is an ‘outsider’ that exists externally, and one that exists internally as well – within oneself. This Asia has been virtually developing in the modern era through the process of ‘East-West Fusion’. It is but obvious that the process should not be simply summed up by the word ‘aggression’. During the process of Asian rejuvenation, Asia was made to incorporate the values of ‘modernism’ which were essentially generated in the West. In this process, Asia had no choice but to face the violent hegemony of the West, and through the efforts to overturn it, convert the ‘outsider’ into a part of its own self. The pattern of ‘fusion’ in the present situation of Iraq typically mimics the heavy historical substance of Asia. ‘Superior’ values and socio-political systems forced by violent means induced an element of tension in Asian history and made the nature of Asia far more complex.

Thus Asia does not constitute a concrete territory that can be perceived instinctively. The concept of an ‘outsider’ is essentially incongruent with that of Asia (East Asia is the object of this statement), where it materializes only through the medium of a ‘strong feeling of self-negation’. This has generated a huge reaction from the perspective of shaping a particular characteristic feature within the concept of ‘being Asian’. The characteristic feature is inherent in the distinction between the self and outsider, which does not exist unidimensionally, but is imperatively a two-dimensional cognition.

 

When thought of in a single dimension, ‘being Asian’ is easier to understand by concentrating on the concept of ‘me having, but the other person not having.’ Confucianism and Buddhism have been propounded in such dimensions. However, these cultural traditions were sidelined due to post-modern westernization, rarely show-cased in the social system, and ceased to move the society actively and directly. Rather, the European and American social systems that were considered as ‘outsiders’ became the ‘ultimate form’ for our social systems. The concept of a Nation State is one such example. Many of the keywords that were used in the West in the past have now become keywords for us. Other examples are Democracy, Liberty, Science, and so on.

However, when seen in the light of two-dimensional thinking, Asia has neither been a copy of western society, nor has it been its variation. Again, Asia is not the ‘soul’ where the West can cooperate with its ‘Science’. Our history has never had a process that would carry out such a conspicuous distinction between the self and outsider. At the same time, when recreating oneself by learning from outsiders (the West) who were seemingly in an advantageous position, although western concepts and social system were easy to import, the historical logic that existed in the background of those concepts could not be imported with similar ease.

Like all societies which cannot liberate themselves from an invisible historical logic, the Asian society that might give an impression of being westernized too cannot easily westernize its innate historical logic. In the past, the various ‘foreign’ elements that were imitated and accepted within the boundaries of Asian historical logic, were compelled to undergo change as a result of inconsistent interpretation and positioning. But, almost in tune with these changes in appearance, Asian historical logic itself had to change. The fact that neither Confucianism or Buddhism can become a guiding force to transform society in the present era is an apt example of this phenomenon.

 

However, why is it that despite the many influences imbibed from western society, Asia is not considered as a variation of the West? Why is it that the principles of western society cannot become the principles of Asia? If the issue is explored further, the following outcomes would be observed: Earlier I had mentioned the interactive principles of ‘external influence’ and ‘external orientation’ as those which opened up questions regarding the individuality of Asia; this, however, did not mean that individuality was lost. In other words, self-negation does not necessarily mean a complete transformation into the external element. Just because individuality that has self-negation as a medium is constituted of multiple layers, it must not be reduced to simple and singular categories. For example, both debating ‘Asia’ as a geographical unit, or alternatively emphasizing ‘Asia’ as a symbol of the principles (methodology), have shortcomings as methods of classification. Everything said and done, synthesizing ‘Asia’ on the basis of integrating both geography and principles too would also have its own limitations.

 

Well, if at all this kind of Asia with its own identity does exist, how do we actually perceive it? The following issues can be pondered upon in the first place. For a start, the fact that the concept of ‘East Asia’ invariably replaces ‘Asia’ in today’s context itself is of great interest. That ‘way of replacing’ holds a profound political meaning from the perspective of ‘functionalizing’ East Asia in the real sense. This perhaps means that the various shades of the historical concept of ‘Asia’ are utilized, the passive nuances are subjectively rallied, and ‘Asianness’ is spontaneously created by being a part of Asia. In order to express the individuality of Asia, it may be necessary to use the word ‘Asianness’. If at all ‘Asia’ refers to a concrete geographical area, ‘Asianness’ would refer to the inherent attributes of that area. Thus, although merely being a part of Asia, one should be able to express one’s identity through the word ‘Asia’. I would like to attract the attention of readers to the following phenomenon. The only major geographical entity which utilizes and reproduces the word ‘Asia’ today is neither West Asia nor South Asia, but East Asia.

Historically speaking, even in the region of East Asia, there were times when the concepts of ‘Asia’ or ‘Asianism’ were emphasized, but due to post-modern conflicts, the unity of East Asia was unfortunately ‘expressed’ in the word ‘Asia’. In other words, as a result of the painful incidents of history, this region was interconnected primarily by ‘hostile relations’; after the wars, it was integrated through the process of mutual settlement, which was inevitably necessary to resolve the conflicts. Simply put, East Asia has been bound by tensile forces over the ages. Today, when we are making an effort to start anew, despite having inherited such historical legacies, there is of course some sense in the thought of constructing East Asian international relations through narrating the original concept of Asia. However, it cannot be claimed that the real political importance of this replacement is sufficiently recognized by that alone.

 

The concept of singing the praise of ‘Asianness’ in spite of inheriting the historical legacy of wars, is not to marginally separate oneself from the stained phrase of a ‘Greater Asian Sphere of Cooperation’. The fact that a very ambiguous argument is advanced, in which West Asia is almost neglected while advancing the concept of Asia, is an outcome of the need to relatively identify the framework of East Asia when directly viewing the region. Asia is not just a concept relative to the West, but is also a means to view the contradictions within Asia. Especially, for establishing the identity of the region of East Asia, a region with the highest composition of ‘Asianness’, the concept of Asia is indispensable.

The second point is that there is a tendency to recall such historical elements which have been obstructing the integration of the region of East Asia. Presently, it is not practically possible to integrate East Asia. More than anything else, the region lacks the fundamental centripetal force required to constitute a community. The historical legacy left by post-war American hegemony and progress of mixture of Oriental and Occidental cultures after World War II cannot be erased merely through concepts like ‘Culture of Chinese Characters’ or ‘Confucian Culture’. Considering the basic fact that an Asian community will be shaped while having internalised US influence, it should be understood that defining the characteristic of an Asian community will always be a complicated process. Moreover, the Cold War order that succeeded World War II continues to cast its influence on the political situation of today. In the wake of this situation, even if there is a hypothetical existence of a centripetal force that would bind the Asian community together, where is it that we can identify its exact source?

 

In East Asia, the issue of understanding the position of nations belonging to the so called ‘Socialist Camp’ during the Cold War period, like China and North Korea (DPRK), will be an important point of concern in building the community. Today, common terminologies like ‘globalization’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘regionalism’ are in vogue, but on the other hand, the sensitivity of China and North Korea regarding their respective revolutions has been absorbed into the western model of the Cold War period. Actually, the awareness that ‘China has finally started treading the road of capitalism’ is also becoming strong among the Chinese intelligentsia. However, the complex practical developments are not happening in the dimension of any ‘doctrine’, but are taking place in a historical context. The diversity of this region cannot be recognized without a historical context. The so-called social experiment termed as socialism is still alive in China and North Korea in a form that has undergone radical change. Viewed in the light of these basic facts, the issue of unification of the Korean peninsula, or the relations of Chinese mainland with Taiwan, cannot be discussed by separating them from their historical contexts. And furthermore, the category of East Asia assumes its form on the basis of these issues.

There have been attempts to consider East Asia independently. The debate on inclusion of Vietnam within the scope of this concept or the attempt to consider South East Asia together with East Asia, are a few examples. As a result, the aforesaid issues were transformed or concealed, but remained far from being resolved. The deep-rooted ‘Cold War Structure’ is hindering Asia from being ‘One’. The introduction of a market economy in Chinese society or the impending reformation of North Korea, are not factors that would disintegrate this structure. Rather, due to an increase in superficial proximity of social systems in the East Asian region, unresolved confrontations would be further concealed and aggravated.

 

The third point is that a more liberal concept of ‘Creation of Asia’ needs to be mulled over, with East Asia as the object. The whole concept of Asia is not something to be inherited, but rather one that has to be created. However, similar to the creation of history, this construction too demands a basis in reality. That proof of reality may be evident in the socio-political systems evolving cumulatively in spite of being constantly dynamic and possessing invisible elements. The reality that is being reflected by these systems also provides a proof. However, similar to the fact that ‘History does not lie merely in reality’, ‘Asia does not merely lie in these systems.’ Just as Asianness is created from self-negation, the awareness of being Asian cannot be developed only by the ‘unique things’ that one possesses. Rather, it would be possible only through the paradoxical process of the struggle between the ‘self’ and ‘outsider’ and choosing one’s own actual self which would eventually produce the principle of Asia.

 

In reality, East Asia is still far from being a unified entity due to the various paradoxes and conflicts within itself. In spite of facing such a reality, what sort of an endeavour would it be to sing the praises of a ‘Asian Community’? Epistemologically, the creation of Asia calls for a formation of the individuality that is very different from western ‘individuality’. The ‘unity’ based on uniformity and resemblance is not the only form of unity. A ‘multi-dimensional’ global society cannot be created without an Asia (or Latin America or Africa), which is today treated as a weakling. Although ‘multi-dimension theory’ is already popular in Europe and America, it is quite evident that at the base of that formulation is a ‘single-dimension theory’ centred around western values. In order to escape from this, Asia has to make a breakthrough and follow a different direction.

Uniformity and resemblance are certainly not the basis of unity, but difference and tension themselves can become the foundation of unity. This kind of unity will not be uniform but diversity-centric, and the mutually complementary relations would lead to the process of interrelation. A major issue in the creation of Asia in the future would be the shift from creation of a foundation for unity by searching for homogeneity to a creation of unity by seeking diversity.

 

* Translated from Chinese.

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