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Where did the 'Asian century' vanish to?

Regional bickering, historical baggage and poor leaders conspire to darken Asia's bright future

Not long ago, just before the turn of the millennium, many people were talking about the coming of the Asian century. They pointed to burgeoning Asian economies, military modernisation, the rise of China and India, along with the economic might of Japan and South Korea. But eight years into this millennium, things don't seem that pretty.

Thais are bickering with neighbours, and among themselves. Sixteen years ago the Thais took to the streets to demand the return of electoral democracy. Today, we appear to be back to square one. People are back on the streets, but this time they are saying they don't want what they had demanded in 1992. And by the time we Thais figure out what we want, we will probably still be bickering with our neighbours, be it the Cambodians or the Burmese.

Over the past four years, we have had several spitting contests with Malaysia over the violence in the restive South - and they didn't get us anywhere.

In the lower region of Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Singapore still can't come to terms over the latter's independence. Indonesia and Malaysia, in spite of sharing the same language, are bickering over a cultural song that is being use to promote tourism. Would it not be smarter to jointly promote the two countries? Tourists are always suckered by a two-for-the-price-of-one destination deal.

In the Philippines, there were high hopes that peace in Mindanao could be achieved, but President Gloria Arroyo could not find it within herself to stand up to the nationalists, who forced the government to scrap the entire peace process and to come up with an entire new blueprint. This will not see the light of day for some time yet.

In northeast Asia, Japan and China appear to be moving in the right direction after some soul-searching moments over the past few years that brought bilateral ties to their knees. Today, overall ties are on the right track. The two countries like to point to their trade volumes. But the people still hate each other as much as ever.

Paradoxically, the entire region is more integrated. Whether it is Japanese fads and Korean fashion or satellite television, Asian countries are closer to each other than ever before. Still, infectious nationalism rears its ugly head in many countries in the region, stirring up hatred that justifies small-minded agendas. The recent suggestion from Cambodian strongman Hun Sen that Thailand should relinquish its chairmanship of Asean, or Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara calling China's space programme "outdated", are just two examples.

Officials who get paid to be optimistic often boast about "e" this and "e" that - be it e-commerce or e-tourism - and that information is just a click on your computer screen. But while this information may be just a click away, our knowledge and understanding of our neighbours has not improved.

Part of the problem is that Asia does not have enough dynamic leaders who are willing to make bold moves or take initiatives that may come at the expense of their popularity. This means letting go of some of the historical baggage and coming clean with people about the current, real situation.

Moreover, Asian powers are fixated on "win-win" diplomacy while turning a blind eye to the fact that such an approach comes as the expense of progress. Asean's dealings with Burma, whether in diplomacy or humanitarian crises, are a case in point.

Asian countries often talk about how a united Asia, through its regional and sub-regional groups and forums, could counter US influence in the region. But suspicion and wariness continue to characterise relationships between most Asian governments.

Few Asian leaders would admit to it but there appears to be a general satisfaction with the US role as security guarantor and economic partner. The problem with this arrangement is that when Asian powers get too comfortable, they do not want to give anything up. They forget that leadership comes with certain tasks, risks and costs. They forget, too, the part about commitment.

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