05 Apr 2012

In the last two decades since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed many changes in human history unimaginable for both their swiftness and extent

In the last two decades since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed many changes in human history unimaginable for both their swiftness and extent: the emergence of emerging, front-running developing countries; information technology accelerating with globalisation; environmental degradation; enhanced global mobility and the resultant non-traditional security issues including human security. The story arc, as the narrative goes, is that of the decline of West and the rise of Asia, particularly China.

In this narrative, the decline of the West is rooted in myriad problems: the snowballing public debt in developed countries needed to maintain extensive social security coverage, low competitiveness in manufacturing, falling birth rate and declining population, with its impact on labour force productivity. The West is cast in commentaries and analyses as complacent and resting on the laurels of the success of Western systems established in early twentieth century. In contrast, Asian nations are portrayed as coming into their own by capitalising on their huge reserve of natural and human resources, including its pool of hardworking, low-wage, skilled workforce. They are described as having sieved through Western models and successfully benchmarked Western economic practices, gleaning lessons by studying key decision makers in successful developing countries in the West and modifying the knowhow and methodologies of the West.

Indeed, certain Western methods and values can account, directly and indirectly, for the swift economic development of the developing countries such as the Asian tigers and now the BRICs (the term coined to cover the large emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China), amongst others: global free trade and investment systems, rational thinking, and pragmatism. Where the Western model is seen as solid are in the areas of promoting democracy, human rights, rule of the law, good governance, civil society, and welfarism. Here, Asia lags, though not for long in the broader scheme of things.

Although Asian nations admit that most “Western values” can be regarded as universal values and that they can enhance human dignity, the fact that many emerging countries with authoritarian governments were showing speedy economic success have led some Asians to argue that there is no direct relation between the embodiment of the Western values and economic growth. They further argue that the resources of developing countries should first be prioritised for economic development for the sake of making the economic pie bigger, leaving other major Western values such as democracy to be adopted later. Doubtless, the focus on development first has brought huge economic success in many emerging countries, and this very economic success has enabled leaders to consider institutionalising certain Western touchstones later. Even in countries where top-down adoption of Western values is absent, improvements in economic conditions have led to the spontaneous emergence of increasing internal demand for democracy and equality. Even in China, many elements of democratic procedures are gradually becoming prevalent, for example in the nomination and performance evaluation of cadres in the communist party, where the system of appointment by the incumbent in the past is starting to be replaced. Still, it would take decades if not longer to evaluate these developments as a whole to see if the narrative of comparing them as Western versus Asian models has been instructive or prohibitive.


The perpetual debate is whether to pursue democracy and to uphold the promotion and protection of human rights and rule of law first, or seek economic development first to escape from extreme poverty, taking into account the cultural diversity of the developing countries. Both points of view have their merit. In any case, both East and West seem to agree at least that gross violation of human rights justified by the excuse of economic development and national security cannot be tolerated.

Regarding the rise of Asia, few if any would dispute the observation that an economic shift from West to East is underway. One would also be wise to note that swings like these have occurred in history and are not immutable.

The current economic growth and development of East Asian countries can be described as analogous to a densely intertwined network of a big factory that comprises all neighbouring countries on the basis of regional division of labour. Just like the chains of a big production base, all the economies in the region share production elements such as financial resources, technical expertise, parts and semi-parts, skilled workforce with low wage. In this context, the rise of China is deeply interconnected to the rise of Asia. All Asian countries import consumption goods from China; all Northeast Asian countries heavily depend on imported energy; foreign direct investment contributes half of Chinese gross domestic product. As such, China and its neighbours have a symbiotic relationship. While it is true that the economic rise of China itself is pertinent, it is also playing a key role in the economic rise of East Asia in particular, and Asia as a whole.

On the social and political front, amid the start-and-stop process of reform and opening up, China has embraced the merits of the global market mechanism and has shown cooperativeness in regional mechanisms such as the ASEAN+3 and Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation, ASEAN Regional Forum, China-Japan-Korea Trilateral Summit, and East Asia Summit, while rendering much assistance to the developing countries in the region. The peaceful rise of China needs to be incorporated in more institutionalised regional mechanisms in the East Asia. There are many issues for Asian countries to tackle together: frequent natural disasters on a massive scale, financial crises, energy cooperation, environmental degradation, climate change, cross-border epidemics, human-trafficking, migrant workers, cyber-crimes, conflict prevention to sustain regional economic growth, and nuclear proliferation.

Many newly emerging countries will also begin to go through the growth pains from the speedy economic development that Japan and South Korea are now fighting to address at great social cost, namely the increasing demand for various social rights by a ballooning middle class, income disparity, weakened traditional value systems and increasing nuclear families, the problem of an ageing society in the absence of mature social safety nets, etc. These social difficulties stem from a swift and unilateral focus be on economic growth without investing sufficient resources to social development from the early stage of economic development. Emerging countries in East Asia will do well to share their experiences in public policy making to address these social problems.

Western economic methodology and values adopted by Asia have allowed Asians to play significant roles in the international community and to sustain its economic growth over the long term. But Asia should also redefine its own values and to create a good mechanism for effective regional cooperation and forge its own model.

What model?

What kinds of values or global public goods can Asia provide to the world (the West)? Except in the case of certain totalitarian regimes wishing to spread its propaganda, no one country or region sets out to invent and propagate a given set of values for the sake of influencing others. Even established Western values as they stand today are themselves the result of a long period of refinement and consolidation through trial and error and gradual systemic social change. If current values prevalent in a society or a region do not provide a model to be shared with others, societies can nevertheless look towards its own past in reviving good traditional values. Traditional Asian values focused mainly on relations of humans in a society and emphasised ethical behavioral modes such as respect to the parents, elders and teachers, care for juniors and subordinates, tolerance for other races, religions, languages, and cultures, understanding and politeness, diligence, strong desire for education and culture. In many countries in Asia, these values have been weakened or have disappeared due to industrialisation and modernisation in last century or because of the psychological and material impact from their colonisation experience during the previous centuries.

Furthermore, because most traditional Asian values are reliant on personal relations and ethical behavior, they are more difficult to codify and institutionalise for application to a society and a state than the Western ones. However, globalisation and the communications revolution have allowed individuals to gain unprecedented freedom from state control and traditional Asian values may find relevance once again to the new generation of the world as the ethical code of conduct in a globalised and individualised world. Ultimately, in the future, in a universally democratised and economically and socially integrated world, should most cross-border issues have been resolved in a cooperative manner, superpowers would no longer have the status they have today. Instead, the world would conceivably demand to be equal and balanced players in the complex layers of world, region, state, and individual.

What is today called “the ASEAN way” can be interpreted as a hybrid set of values that draws as much from Asian tradition as they reflect pragmatism born of an earlier realpolitik era: non-coercion as a manifestation of tolerance; non-interference, politeness; consensus, understanding; proceeding at a pace comfortable to all reflects respect; and the initiative for ASEAN integration an aspect of showing care. During the 45 years of its existence, ASEAN has seen relatively peaceful co-existence with respect to its six founding members, and gradual economic advancement. It is now heading towards building an ASEAN Community by 2015. Critics, even sometimes within ASEAN, say that the ASEAN way lacks an effective and comprehensive conflict resolution mechanism because of the prioritisation of harmony amongst its members. But despite such criticisms of ASEAN’s powerlessness as a collective problem solver, the ASEAN way has its merit and will appeal more in a new, globalised world looking to cultivate the habits of dialogue and cooperation among members.

So, for Asia to be able to provide its own values to the West, ASEAN, its dialogue partners and other concerned parties, could develop a formalised, concrete mechanism shaped around values which are the basis for its thinking on conflict-resolution and decision-making processes. If Asia wants to keep and sustain its current economic development, East Asia should establish a concrete and credible institution. The expanded East Asia Summit, in this respect, may be the appropriate vehicle for carrying out this goal. One possibility would be to build on the momentum of ASEAN community building after 2015 to upgrade the East Asia Summit into a preparatory mechanism towards building possibly a loose and open “East Asia Community”. Existing regional security mechanisms should also be encompassed within the East Asia Community. This East Asia Community would not be based on the EU supranational model but could be on the ASEAN model. It should boost regional economic integration through more liberalisation of trade and investment, consolidate various regional trade agreements and free trade agreements, increase people-people exchange and connectivity, and protect regional security. The successful building and managing of the East Asian community itself, in whichever form it takes, would show the world the relevance of Asian values. Currently, the East Asia Summit is working only as a dialogue forum among 18 leaders, and once debated issue of establishing ‘East Asia Community” is now forgotten.

Ultimately, however, the relevance of any system is not determined by just the values underpinning it but its ability to address the needs and wants of the epoch. Taking a longer view of history and evolution of societies, the popular debate casting competing systems as “Western” or “Asian” has limited cache. The over-arching narrative is that of a world of 7 billion inhabitants increasingly connected after a century of industrialisation and technological advancements that underpin modern societies. Asian countries would do well to focus on the implications and not be too caught up in the polemics of East versus West.

Cha Young-Cheol is a Senior Fellow from the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (Korea) at the Lee Kuan Yew School. His email is