On the reification of an East Asian community

By Daniele Pestilli on December 5, 2010
This brief essay was submitted to a competition given jointly by The Korea Times and the Northeast Asia History Foundation. It was published in the paper of Tuesday, November 9th, 2010.

What can we do to realize an East Asian community in this 21st century of reconciliation and communication?

The desire of realizing an East Asian community is by no means a fabrication of the 21st century. Ruminate the Mongols’ endeavor during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to unify all the people in the eastern and central Asian continent; think of Japan’s failed attempt to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere during the 20th century, or the great journeys of Buddhist monks throughout Asia, which laid the foundations for shared values and religious ideology. Although these examples are displaced in terms of epoch, the point is clear: visions of Asian unity that sought to create a continental identity can be traced throughout the course of East Asian history.

On August 12th, 1903, a Korean writer for the Hwangseong Sinmun wrote,

The three countries of our yellow race are mutually dependent, like an axle and cart or lips and teeth. We should combine our strength and unite our hearts in striving to protect our land and race. How is it that we do not consider the principle of helping one another and plan only temporary expedients, chase after trifling benefits, and forget the great duty?

Despite the urgent tone of this excerpt, it is hard to believe that the impetus for an East Asian community has perennially been such a pressing concern: just as nationalism thrives on crisis, Pan-Asianism thrived on the threat of Westernization. Advocates of continental cooperation ebb and flow according to the needs of the times.

Now, in the 21st century, the need for continental cooperation calls more vehemently than in the past. Although some still fear the Leviathan of Westernization, there are new, greater global challenges we presently face.

There are three important phenomena that are specific to our age: the first is rapidity of communication; the second is the shift of power in the international economic scene; the third is environmental change. All three are deeply entwined, but the last one poses by far the greatest threat since if it is ignored for much longer, there will be little to add to history textbooks. The capitalist system, which has been adopted willy-nilly by all the leading global economic forces, bases itself on the principle of maximum profit in the least amount of time. This bout for speedy production has changed our natural surroundings and is on the verge of spiraling out of control. However, it is also by means of the competitiveness of a capitalist system that we have achieved one of the greatest goods of our time: rapid communication, and with communication there can be reconciliation and solidarity. In other words, a remedy has evolved alongside the malady, and if we are willing to accept this, tackling the problem will also be easier.

Dialogue, communication and reconciliation are the tools by which an East Asian community can be reified, and by creating such a union, environmental problems that threaten all of mankind can be resolutely confronted.

The scales have tipped and neither Europe, nor America can conceivably compete with the combined economic efforts an East Asian community. But being a global economic leader entails immense moral responsibility: not only must it act as a guide for other nations, but it must safeguard the human race. Cooperation is quintessential: our world has no more use for hermit kingdoms. If an East Asian bloc is to be actualized, the element of mystery must be eliminated from governments, as it destroys communities for fear of potential enemies. Furthermore, in such an enormous multi-ethnic region, educational changes must be carried out: to establish a sense of community, a more equal, elementary education must be extended to all corners of this new giant, and although the past must be taught, lopsided historical animosity should be curbed in the name of reconciliation. Saving the global environment is in everyone’s best interest, thus everyone must partake in its social planning and be instructed on how to do so. A people bound by the will to lead economically and culturally while preserving the environment, and by extension, humanity, is effectively the best way to solidify a union of countries. These problems bind us all, and they go beyond nationality and beyond religious or political credences, because the solution, reconciliation and communication, is at the basis of what it means to be human, of what it means to help one another instead of profiting at the expense of others. Most importantly, an East Asian community must be one of partnership, collaboration and positive engagement and must not have one patron leading the flock.

We often fool ourselves into believing that the task is too big, that change can only occur very slowly if it can occur at all. But shouldn’t this be the first thing to change? The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu famously wrote that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. To realize an East Asian community, the first step is communication. It is not an impossibility – all it will take is synergy, good will, and a bit of hard work.

1Schmid, Andre. Korea between Empires, 1895-1919. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. 89. Print.