When it comes to the future of East Asia, a recurrent topic over the past decades has been the possible emergence of some kind of an East Asian commonwealth in this region. These conversations were clearly inspired by the success story of the European Union, although fewer observers directly refer to the European experience over the past few years, quite understandably considering that the EU has lost some of its luster with Brexit, the Greek debt crisis and problems in Eastern Europe.
Nevertheless, the idea that a regional bloc will one day materialize in East Asia persists, although many now agree that this hypothetical bloc would not go as far as the European Union in terms of integration. However, a truly dispassionate look at the ongoing developments in East Asia suggests that these ideas are utopian in the extreme.
East Asia as a term not only refers to a specific geographical region, but also carries historical and cultural meanings. From a historical and cultural perspective East Asia includes countries that were dominated by Confucianism and a Chinese form of Buddhism in the pre-colonial era that lasted until the mid or late 19th century. Their main and only language for state administration and high culture was Old Chinese, and the government structures mimicked Chinese institutions. This region included China, Taiwan, the two Koreas, Japan and Vietnam (but not Mongolia or Laos). Over the last decades this region has been one of the main drivers of global economic growth. Despite all the turbulent events of the 20th century, it retains, at least to some extent, its relative cultural uniformity.
But while there are certain similarities between East Asia and Europe, they are ultimately deceptive. In reality, there are many serious and even unsurmountable obstacles to creating a viable East Asia commonwealth.
The main obstacle is nationalism, which prevailed in the 20th century as the main state ideology across the countries of a region once dominated by Confucianism. Nationalism in East Asia has little in common with European nationalism. There is no doubt that Europe is the cradle of present-day nationalism. East Asian nationalism was imported from Western Europe 100 or 150 years ago and retains a lot of similarities with early 20th century European nationalism with its “blood and soil” rhetoric, claims of ancestral lands taken over by treacherous neighbors, and narratives focused on past achievements and the global significance of national cultures.
However, in Western Europe most forms of ethno-nationalism were discredited among elites by the first and especially the second world wars for being closely associated with the senseless bloodbaths of the battles of Somme and Verdun, the Nazi insanity and the Holocaust. In addition to this, amid the relative decline of Europe after 1945 and the shift of the global center of gravity to faraway countries, European nations and their elites quickly realized that the times when they could divide up the entire world by settling disputes and conflicts among themselves were gone. In the new landscape, the instinct for self-preservation forced Europe to come together. The presence of Soviet tanks at its eastern borders provided an additional incentive. The emergence of the EU is closely linked to NATO, and the union was cemented by the overwhelming consensus regarding the threat from the East.
East Asia has never developed an allergy to nationalism among its elites or popular masses. Even today, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese professors freely talk about the national greatness or even genetic and biological superiority of their people, which would cost their colleagues in Europe or the US their jobs. There is a firmly held belief in East Asia that if any kind of nationalism can be blamed for the Second World War, it is Japanese nationalism. At the same time, intellectual elites are quite positive about their homegrown nationalism and sometimes even fail to regard it as such.
Accordingly, relations between countries within the region have been marked by a high level of mutual distrust and hostility for many decades. Each and every country, Japan included, believes that it stands for reason, peace and good, while viewing its neighbors, or at least some of them, as the incarnation of treachery and ingratitude. For all the talk in Soviet times about the emergence of a supposed Seoul-Tokyo-Washington military bloc, in reality relations between Japan and South Korea have remained extremely tense, and the leadership in Seoul uses every opportunity to play the anti-Japanese card with recurrent requests that Tokyo apologize for its past sins, treating all the preceding apologies as “insufficiently sincere.” Vietnam still views China as an eternal enemy and is ready to join any alliance that promises immediate returns, including with the US, even though the memory of the bloody Vietnam War still lingers on. For present-day China, frequent reminders about war crimes committed by Japan during the Second World War are an important tool of ideological mobilization.
Of course, these countries could overcome their nationalism, at least in theory. After all, Western Europe has been able to get over this scourge. This would be no easy task, since the region lacks the factors that helped rid Western Europe of nationalism, such as the presence of a common outside threat and a broader aversion to nationalism. For most East Asian countries the main external threat (or so it is believed) lies within, not outside, the region: for Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan this threat is China, while South Korea views North Korea as its main threat. There are only two countries, China and partly North Korea, for whom the primary threat is located outside the region.
However, if efforts to rid East Asia of nationalism are successful, there will be another obstacle on the hypothetical way to an East Asian union. The unbalanced structure of the regional economy could constitute an unsurmountable challenge.
What sets the EU apart is the absence of a clear leader that far outpaces other countries on the main indicators. This can be clearly seen from basic EU statistics.
Once Brexit is complete, Germany, France and Italy will have a decisive role in the EU. Germany is the largest of the three with a population of 82.5 million people or 18.5 percent of EU population, and 23.4 percent of the EU’s GDP (without counting Great Britain). France accounts for 15 percent of the overall population and 16.2 percent of the EU’s GDP, while Italy is 13.6 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively. Consequently, Germany’s clear demographic and economic leadership falls short of outright dominance, since France and Italy are within reach. Moreover, countries like Poland and Spain are also EU members that are not that far behind the leading countries in terms of population (and share of GDP for Spain).
East Asia presents an entirely different landscape. If we limit ourselves to the so-called Confucian commonwealth, i.e. a hypothetical bloc formed by China, the two Koreas, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam, it would have a population of 1.75 billion people with China accounting for 81.7 percent of the East Asian union’s population, should it ever come into being.
GDP figures are also an obstacle, albeit to a lesser extent. East Asian countries have an aggregate nominal GDP of $19.5 trillion (as of 2017). Here as well China accounts for more than one half with a GDP of $11.9 trillion or 61.2 percent. Even more importantly, China continues to increase its already significant share in the region’s overall GDP, since its economy is growing at a faster pace compared to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
To better grasp the problem, recall that Germany accounts for just 23.4 percent of the EU’s nominal GDP and still faces constant accusations of hegemony, despite the overall weakness of nationalism in Europe.
The resulting picture is quite clear: any regional integration project in East Asia would inevitably be susceptible to domination by China due to the overwhelming demographic and economic imbalances. Joining a union of this kind would inevitably require subordination to China’s political, economic and even military interests. Considering the fact that a number of countries within the region – in particular Vietnam, Japan and Taiwan – distrust China, a union of this kind would be politically unacceptable to them. Even Korea, where anti-China sentiment has been low compared to other countries, would hardly be eager to join a union that lacks any balance by definition.
This has been indirectly confirmed by the chilly reception for China’s Belt and Road Initiative in East Asia. Regional countries are not willing to join integration projects backed by China for the above stated reasons, even though China accounts for a major share in their respective trade balances.
Joint projects are, of course, still possible in the region, but there should be no illusions regarding prospects for long-term and full integration in East Asia.