AFP - Sat Jul 22, 2006
Burgeoning trade ties no guarantee of Asian peace: analysts
by Martin Abbugao
Burgeoning economic links through a web of free trade agreements (FTAs), financial cooperation and investments may reduce the risk of war in Asia but are no guarantee of peace, analysts say.
Nationalist sentiments and historical animosities between major Asian countries could sideline economic considerations should tensions come to a boiling point, they say.
"It could be the case that regional integration will reduce the possibility of war — it will probably do so over the long term — but it doesn’t preclude it," said Ross Babbage, a professor of defence and security issues at the Australian National University.
"For some countries, nationalist interests and emotions are likely far more powerful forces," he told AFP.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hold their annual meetings in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur from Monday.
That meeting will be followed by the ASEAN Regional Forum on security issues that will include the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union, among others.
Although economic matters are not on the agenda, ASEAN hopes the growing trade links within and outside the group, increasing financial cooperation and other commercial ties will engender a sense of Asian community and help keep the peace.
It is not always so easy.
Babbage cited relations between Japan and rival China which he said have better economic ties than at any time in the past but "tensions we have seen in the last few months are more serious than at any time over the past 20 years."
China-Japan relations have been strained by a number of political issues, most recently over North Korea’s testing of missiles. The two nations disagreed over whether sanctions should be imposed on Pyongyang.
Ties have also been strained by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which rekindles bitter memories of Tokyo’s World War II aggression.
Another point of tension has been a drawn-out dispute over lucrative gas and oil fields in the East China Sea.
Asia is home to several military flashpoints including the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and mainland China, and the Kashmir region disputed by India and Pakistan.
The potentially oil-rich islands of the South China Sea jointly claimed by China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian countries are also a potential source of conflict.
Andrew Tan, a senior lecturer for defence studies at Kings College London, agreed economic links are not a buffer against war.
"I strongly doubt if the web of economic links will constrain the protagonists for the simple reason that there are strong non-economic reasons for these flashpoints," he told AFP.
China has become Taiwan’s leading foreign investment destination despite political tensions but Tan said the mainland sees Taiwan "as a fundamental nationalist issue" and will never allow the island to declare independence.
"Should Taiwan declare independence today, no regime in China will survive the nationalist outrage if it did not act," Tan said.
China has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan should the island formally separate. It has regarded Taiwan as part of its territory since they split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.
The entire region would be affected economically if conflict involving North Korea erupted, Tan says, "but North Korea is not concerned about the regional impact," only its own survival.
Improving economic ties between Pakistan and India — both nuclear-armed — are also not a guarantee of peace but nuclear deterrence is, Tan said.
"With a situation of mutual assured destruction... the two have now to tread very carefully, for fear that a conflict could escalate into a nuclear conflict, leading to the mutual annihilation of their societies," he said.
Free trade agreements have actually highlighted regional differences and rivalries, especially between China and Japan, said Bob Broadfoot, managing director of the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.
He noted that ASEAN is negotiating FTA’s separately with China, South Korea and Japan but there are no talks for such a deal between Tokyo and Beijing or between Beijing and Seoul.
Regional economies are not intertwined enough to rule out the possibility of conflict, although cooperation within Asia has increased, he said.
"’Integration’ is a wrong word. There is more cooperation in Asia but cooperation and integration are very, very different," he said.