The Crimean crisis certainly weighed on the mind of President Obama as he made his way through Europe. It was interesting then, that on the sidelines of the nuclear summit, he took the time to play peacemaker between two important allies in the East: South Korea and Japan by convening the first meeting between President Park and Prime Minister Abe. It should make a lot of sense for both allies to be great friends as both their economies are deeply inter-dependent. Trade between the two amounted to US$103 billion in 2012, making South Korea the 4th largest trading partner for Japan. Yet due to historical issues, a lot of synergy could not be realised. It is sad that even with all of Asia’s material and spiritual wealth, we lack the generosity needed to build unity with our fellow Asians. Some are even nicer and friendlier with Western nations than it is with Asian counterparts. Without pro-actively addressing our past differences and finding a way to overcome them, these issues will continue to haunt us, drag us into conflict, eventually destroying all that we have built.
Throughout Asia, you will find many long-standing disputes that have seen conflict, with the potential of sparking new ones due to historical issues. Thailand and Cambodia went to war briefly in 2008 over a Buddhist temple even though both nations largely share the same faith. China’s claim over the South China Sea has riled Vietnam and Philippines and is triggering a rise in military spending in the region. Even though Asia is on the path of unprecedented economic growth and enjoying a sustained period of peace, countries in the region are still arming themselves to the teeth. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the rising military budgets means that, “the potential for accidental conflict and escalation will continue to be of concern”.
In 2013 alone, Asia spent US$322 Bn on military budgets, up from US$262 Bn in 2010. That is close to the GDP of Thailand. The question is, why are we acquiring arms on this scale when there is still widespread poverty?
For a significant part of the 20th century, Asia was mired in conflict and millions lost their lives. Together as leaders of our generation, we must do our utmost to turn the page by redesigning the way we collaborate to achieve peace and innovate together to solve our pressing concerns. As business, political and civil leaders, there is a lot at stake if we fail. We need to see the necessity of each other and recognise that Asia’s true edge and advancement can only be achieved if there is unity among us. Here is our proposal to achieve a more united Asia to ignite possibilities and achieve sustainable peace.
1) Communicate the irreparable costs of failure
The Crimea crisis is a perfect example of how any conflict hurts both sides. Strengthening economic ties is key and there are many forums advocating that. But for the people on main street, not everyone knows this. Therefore, it is important for governments to communicate the value of these relationships and the necessity of inter-dependence. There ought to be an index measuring the inter-connectness of our economies and it should be presented in an easy-to-understand and accessible format so that people will think twice about clamouring for war with their neighbours.
2) Highlight the wealth of our shared identity
Rice, with its numerous interpretations across Asia, is a wonderful example of our shared identity. Similarly, our cultures and faiths have never been limited by our national borders. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Indigenous faiths have been enriched by different cultural facets and adds to our individual identities. Whenever I travel in Asia, I discover so many similar aspects in architecture, arts and culture because our forefathers traveled often, exchanging ideas and techniques on making things. Therefore, there should be a collective body of all things Asian, representing how these shared ideas and concepts have enriched our lives.
3) Time to be brave to reconcile and move forward
In 2001, mayors from 1000 European cities gathered in Innsbruck, Austria to share ideas about how to build a more united Europe. I think that is a brilliant idea and we should do the same for Asia. One of the speakers was Chiara Lubich, the founder of Focolare, a global movement which advocates the idea of a united world of which I am a member. She had made this proposal and I think this pact of unity is very apt for our times. If a united Asia is necessary then we have to seriously consider promoting this to all nations in the region. Here is what she said:
“The vocation of Europe lies in this universal brotherhood which creates unity while maintaining the distinctions. It is still on its way. The wars, the totalitarian regimes, the injustices, have left open wounds in need of healing. But to be Europeans truly, we must succeed in looking at the past with mercy, acknowledging as our own the history of my own nation as that of the other, recognizing that what we are today is the fruit of a common happening, of a European destiny that asks to be taken entirely and knowingly into our hands.
Today, the unity of Europe asks European politicians to interpret the signs of the times, and to formulate, as it were, a pact of brotherhood with one another, a pact which commits them to consider themselves as members of Europe as they are members of their own nation, always seeking what unites and together finding solutions to the problems that are still stumbling blocks to the unity of all Europe.”
To truly be Asians, we must acknowledge our shared heritage, culture and values. These things have bound us together and to ignore them – thinking that a better world means that one must be above the other – is flawed.
It is not the size of our economies or militaries which makes us a great. Instead, our defining legacy will be the act of uniting on our own through a uniquely Asian way. It will secure the destiny of millions if we can erase the possibility of conflict amongst ourselves. Any idea is a responsibility so we will dedicate our firm’s effort to accomplish this purpose. Starting with CEOs, politicians and heads of civil societies, we will use Shape the World Conferences to build bridges in Asia. We will get companies to make the first move to invest in collaboration and a shared identity for Asia so that we can secure safer and better growth for all. From there, we desire to get companies and countries to make a pact of unity with each other. If you share this belief, come join us.
Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus. This article is part of The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. For past issues, browse the complete archive.