The idea of Asia

The idea of Asia

ASIA is a political and not just a geographic concept; it is politics that defines geography.

Asia as a political concept has a history stretching back to at least the late 19th century. I want to focus on the most recent phase in the evolution of the concept of Asia that began in the early 1990s.

The notion of Asia that arose in the early 1990s was entangled with, and indeed can hardly be distinguished from, the debate over Asian values that not coincidentally arose at the same time. This is a debate that is far more often talked about than understood. As someone who played a minor role in it, let me give you my perspective.

Geopolitical concerns were the main reason. By the end of the 1980s, the potential for geopolitical complications was high, arising from a combination of factors: the end of the Cold War; consequent Western/American triumphalism; China just beginning to take off as a serious challenge to the West; both US and China freed from constraints of a de facto anti-Soviet alliance, and an inexperienced US administration - until President Bill Clinton was elected in 1993, Democrats had been out of power for 25 years except for the untypical four years under President Jimmy Carter which even Democrats were eager to forget - that seemed more than merely inclined to structure its relationship with China on the basis of the promotion of democracy and human rights.

This is the one area that the Chinese leadership would never compromise, as the 1989 Tiananmen incident clearly demonstrated. But Tiananmen also encouraged the new administration to take a hard line towards China. During the campaign, Mr Clinton accused his predecessor of "coddling dictators".

Why were we concerned? US-China relations are the most important axis of East Asian international relations, affecting the entire region.

When they are stable, the region is calm; when US-China relations are roiled, the entire region is unsettled. And the approach towards China apparently preferred by the new administration promised a rocky ride for the entire region so we entered the debate to try to encourage a more complex view of the issue.

No one was under any illusion that we could change minds. Our aim was the modest one of buying some time for the passions of a new administration to cool and common sense and the imperatives of realpolitik to prevail. In the meantime, if the new administration needed to work their campaign rhetoric out of their system, it was better that they had a broader target than just China.

The immediate locus of the debate was developments leading up to the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights, particularly the Asian Group preparatory meeting held in Bangkok in April 1993. Article 8 of the Bangkok Declaration that emerged out of that meeting was the eye of the storm: "(Ministers and representatives of Asian governments) recognise that while human rights are universal in nature, they must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds."

The Bangkok meeting was split on the core issue of the universality or otherwise of human rights and democracy as a political form, the basic division being roughly between the more Western oriented members like Japan and South Korea, and countries like Iran and China, with the majority somewhere in the middle. I played a role in drafting the language of Article 8 which was eventually accepted as a compromise.

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