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Worrying about the war in the Pacific

Guest Commentary
By Yves Tiberghien
 
In the wake of major leadership changes around East Asia last year, what will the major trends be in the Asia Pacific region in 2014?
Did the battle over the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and the recent provocative visit to Yasukuni Temple by Prime Minister Abe represent only transitory events? Or do they mark a new lasting trajectory?
The Asia Pacific region is in the midst of a major tug-of-war between forces of economic integration and parochial posturing by domestic leaders to domestic audiences. What matters is whether leaders manage to correct the tit-for-tat cycle of misperceptions and symbolic moves, so as to focus on shared institutional steps. The fork in the road is 2014: Canada and its key allies can use their voice to nudge things forward without falling into the many traps offered by the region this year.
On the one hand, the wheels of integration continue to grind forward. The region will host both the APEC summit (Beijing) and the G20 summit (Brisbane) in November. While two regional mega-trade pacts (the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) seemed to collide in early 2013, a rapprochement between the U.S. and China and the completion of the small Bali WTO agreement in December have allowed more bridge-building. U.S.-China relations are in a relatively constructive phase. The early harvest fruits from both Abenomics in Japan and structural reforms initiated at the Third Plenum of the CCP in China could stabilize internal political cycles and enable leaders to seek possible mutual gains.
On the other hand, entrepreneurial political leaders continue to exploit national symbols for parochial gain — for example, in China, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand. Additionally, both India and Indonesia will face crucial elections in 2014 testing whether their countries will double down on economic reforms and integration or faces internal paralysis.
Thailand’s future hangs on the edge of the fragmentation precipice. China continues to delicately rebalance its economic structure, while reaffirming Communist Party leadership. However, the uncertainty and Maoist overtones surrounding current power struggles is — along with a growing military voice — generating some anxiety in the region. Observers will look to see whether Japan’s more confident PM Abe takes pragmatic steps to pull back from the brink of confrontation with South Korea and China. This might be the year Abe manages to decouple strong economic leadership from strong nationalist and provocative leadership abroad.
At such a delicate time, innovative leadership and new efforts at regional institution-building are needed to reverse the downward cycle of domestic posturing. Creative mediation by the U.S., Canada and Australia will matter. Canada can bring its great cross-Pacific human linkages, government capacity, business acumen and academic assets to bear. When major countries consider the balance between cooperation and the political advantages of grandstanding, the responses of trusted international audiences matter.
Canada and the U.S. must hold a clear line and focus on the bigger picture. When Abe brings stable governance to Japan and innovative ideas to its economy, it is time to cheer. But when he visits the Yasukuni shrine — where 14 Class-A war criminals of the Chinese and Pacific wars have been enshrined since 1978 — for pure political gain, it’s time to pull the red card. Would we tolerate a German chancellor visiting shrines to Hitler, Goebbels and Goering? Japan and China’s friends and partners ought to provide a larger perspective to help thwart such cycles of tit-for-tat moves.
China also is in the midst of deep reforms of its economic and social model, leading to uncertainty at home and abroad. On the other hand, Chinese governance processes are more diverse and pluralistic than we often assume. It would be too simple to assume that China is either on the verge of collapse or bent on dominating the region. There’s still time to engage a rising China and its neighbours to advance institutions and human networks that can reduce uncertainty and increase the stability of the system.
If Canada and its partners do not use this decade to support this work, we may face a more dire and competitive world by 2025-2030.
Yves Tiberghien is director of the Institute of Asian Research, associate professor of political science and executive director of the China Council at UBC. He is also a senior fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. This article originally appeared in iPolitics.
 

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