Nationalism in Asia

Joshua Kurlantzick writes that despite rapid growth in Asian economies, the continent remains too divided by rival nationalisms to cooperate and compete with a western-centric world order:

Whenever I visit Asia, I meet young people who detest neighbors they barely know. “The Thais, all they care about is money. Nothing else,” one Burmese acquaintance told me in Rangoon, despite the fact that he’d never actually been to Thailand. In one study taken last year by a leading Japanese nongovernmental organization, two-thirds of the Chinese polled said they had either a “very bad” or “relatively bad” impression of Japan.

As any politician can tell you, public opinion counts. In an open society such as the Philippines, rising anti-Chinese sentiment helped force the government in September 2007 to suspend China-funded projects valued at $4 billion. Even countries that have little history of animosity toward each other can be swept into a rage by the new nationalists. In 2006, after Singaporean state investment fund Temasek Holdings purchased Thai telecommunications giant Shin Corporation, Thai bloggers and online columnists condemned the deal, arguing that a Singaporean company would have control over sensitive Thai communications infrastructure. Thousands of Thais marched to Singapore’s embassy in Bangkok — a move that left urbane Singaporean diplomats, more accustomed to managing business deals than bullhorns, a bit flat-footed.

I would add that regime-type probably matters here. Two countries that both have firmly established open, liberal democratic political systems featuring the rule of law can cooperate with one another in deeper and more complex ways than two countries that don’t. When the commitment of one or both countries to the rule of law is in question, then cooperation requires a lot of trust, and trust isn’t necessarily in strong supply. In particular, unless the Chinese political system dramatically alters at some point, most countries — including countries that are not themselves democracies — will probably find it more desirable to partner with the United States or the EU when possible.