East Asia is arguably the most important part of the world. It is the geographic organizing principle of the global economy. It has an array of strong, consequential nations and treaty allies of the United States. But outside of this or that article or essay about this or that Chinese dissident or the hideous depredations of the North Korean regime, intellectuals and humanists of all stripes tend to write less about East Asia than about other regions. The reasons are several. But in general, we can say that East Asia has comparatively little to offer them.
In fact, East Asia is a rebuke in major respects to the humanist project. It is prosperous and successful, with the latest postmodern infrastructure and technology; yet at a macro political level it is consumed less by universalist ideals than by old-fashioned ethnic nationalism. China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and so on are deeply conscious of their own ethnic identities, which carry within them clashing claims of sovereignty in the South and East China Seas, as well as elsewhere. East Asia shows how exclusivist mindsets need not be confined to poor, post-communist populations or poverty-stricken peoples with tribal or sectarian differences. East Asia is a flagrant example that sustained capitalist development need not necessarily lead to universal values.
East Asia has a prominent multilateral institution, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But while ASEAN is strengthening, it still does not enjoy the clout or influence of multilateral organizations like NATO or the European Union, with all of their respective problems. The real political dynamic in East Asia is not globalization or multilateral institutions, but rather a massive military buildup and modernization. These are not old-fashioned land armies that are being built and procured, but navies, air forces, missile systems and cyber warfare units complete with submarines, surface warships, fighter jets and so forth. Just as sustained capitalism does not automatically lead to universalist values, neither does it automatically lead to a reduction in armed tension and the possibility of violent conflict.
East Asia teaches that prosperity and postmodern communications technology do not negate a deterministic force like geography, but only make geography more precious and claustrophobic. The signature political battle in East Asia is not about democracy or human rights or even economics, but about territory: which ethnic nation controls what parts of the South and East China Seas. These seas adjacent to the Asian mainland may be rich in oil and natural gas, even as their only geographical features are bare rocks, many of which are not above water during high tide. But when one investigates the ferocity of statements about these claims, one sees that these bare rocks have become abstract symbols of nationhood in a hothouse global media environment. Territory and which group controls it is still of primary importance in this world. In a global media age, the contest for national status is ever present.
Such zero-sum arguments hold no interest for humanists, who seek a higher form of politics in which moral questions are intensely engaged. Yet, it is these arguments that largely define the security environment in East Asia.
Moreover, such disputes do not involve the fate of people. Virtually no one lives on these rocks. And even if a small air and sea war were to break out over them, there would be relatively few civilian casualties. And without civilians, there can be no victims for humanists and others to be concerned about. From time to time, post-Maoist East Asia does have massive humanitarian crises, usually the result of natural — weather and seismic — disasters. But because the culprit here is Mother Nature, moral choice does not operate and thus there is little for intellectuals to discuss or debate.
Indeed, from an intellectual point of view, East Asia is a sterile environment compared to other parts of the world. East Asia is about logistical supply chains, merchant shipping, oil tankers, middle class megacities, potential canal and land bridge projects and so on. These are all fascinating phenomena, but not to humanists. Of course, East Asia is replete with beauty and luxurious civilizations. But these are artistic and historical subjects that, at the moment, do not stimulate a values debate, as do other parts of the world.
Of course, East Asia has had a robust political values debate. But the winner has not been liberalism so much as pragmatism. The hero of East Asia, the political avatar to whom all aspire, is the retired leader and founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee transformed Singapore in the course of the late 20th century from a poverty-stricken malarial hellhole to one of the world's most prosperous and efficiently run small states. Singapore isn't just where Western corporate elites want to do business, but where they also want to be based. Lee's success was not built on liberalism or democracy — the political ideals of humanism — but on enlightened authoritarianism, with a sizable helping of Confucian values. Democracy existed under Lee, but it was less pivotal than the fact of the meritocratic corporate state he built. Singapore has substituted the beauty of ideas in favor of what works. So has post-Maoist China, governed as it is by Deng Xiaoping's advice about "seeking truth from facts."
Intellectual debates are often motivated by some sort of humanitarian tragedy or political failure of nerve, but there is little of that in Singapore or in most other places in East Asia. Perhaps the most prevalent visual site in the region is not refugee encampments but glittering shopping malls — even as the most respected form of military hardware is submarines, which is where the future of naval warfare is going, owing to the increasing vulnerability of surface warships to missile strikes. The countries of East Asia are all about business, and the character of their military acquisitions signals that they mean business.
True, there is always North Korea. North Korea represents one of the world's greatest, ongoing humanitarian tragedies — the result of a regime that is both communist and national-fascist. The implosion of North Korea would take the responsibility of its semi-starving people out of the hands of the Pyongyang regime and deliver it into the hands of the international community and the militaries of the United States, South Korea and China. The complexities of such a circumstance, as well as the heartrending sights and tales that would emerge at a level of magnitude unknown in East Asia since the end of the Vietnam War, would certainly stir intellectuals and humanists of all stripes. But that simply hasn't happened yet. In the meantime, we have a determined group of writers and thinkers, including Barbara Demick, Blaine Harden and Nicholas Eberstadt, whose work has allowed us to know the scope of the tragedy.
But North Korea is an exception to what Asia generally is: a place whose military tensions are built on economic success. That success may not last in China, and China could be in for increased social and political upheaval in the future. That would fundamentally change Asia, and such a circumstance could certainly elicit a values debate.
Yet, there is a larger philosophical question which East Asia does prompt: If even sustained capitalistic success does not necessarily lead to universal values, then what is the fate of Man after all?