East Asia’s Growing Importance in the 21st Century


From left to right: Mr. Devin Stewart, Mr. Yoshikazu Kato, Dr. Charles Armstrong, and Mr. Jamie Metzl

Asia’s importance politically and economically is growing. A recent report by the National Intelligence Council stated, “By 2030, Asia will take over Europe and America combined in global power, based on GDP, population, size, military, spending, and technological investment.” Reflected in the Obama administration’s ‘pivot,’ the spotlight on Asia has prompted anxieties in the leadership of East Asian countries.

On Tuesday April 2, the Center for Global Affairs, co-sponsored by the Student Association for Global Affairs (SAGA), hosted a panel discussion “Challenges in East Asia: Escalation, Transformation and Influence.” With the elemental themes of China’s economic rise; escalating territorial disputes; recent leadership transitions in China, South Korea, and Japan; and tensions rising in the Korean Peninsula, this panel discussion received full attendance with participants eager to hear what the panelists had to say.

Mr. Jamie Metzl, partner at Cranemere LLC and Senior Fellow at the Asia Society, set the tone explaining that, “East Asia today looks much like Europe in the 19th century,” – a period of nationalism, industrialization, economic growth and arms build up.

Dr. Charles Armstrong, a Korean history expert at Columbia University, quickly touched on the most recent North Korean threats and urged, “not to underestimate North Korean nationalism.” He explained, “For North Koreans, the Korean War is not yet over.” He also added that military action and UN sanctions wouldn’t stop North Korea. Kim Jung Un, the 29-year-old leader, who took over the regime after the death of his father, is looking to legitimize himself. Dr. Armstrong added, “If you’re Kim Jung Un, you get what you want” – even a visit from a former NBA basketball star.

Mr. Yoshikazu Kato, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School who spent the last decade in China during the Hu-Jintao and Wen Jiabao administration, urged for solutions in the East China Sea territorial disputes. From a Japan-China perspective, he noted that the information gap between the two states, a complete lack of diplomatic talks, and a decline in effective governance capabilities as key observations to the stagnation of the issues in the East China Sea. Indeed, it should be remembered that the impact of the escalating tensions between neighbors – the second and third largest economies the world – has regional and global ramifications as disruptions can affect global production and supply chains.

Mr. Metzl added that a strong Japan is needed. However in order to do so, Japan would have to put its economic house in order by actually – not simply alluding to – joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Furthermore, Japan must also come to terms with its history, following Germany’s example. He further added that empowering women could solve demographic issues in Japan.

On the territorial disputes, Dr. Armstrong claimed, “If possession is nine-tenths of the game, then Korea should have Dokdo (in Korean) or Takeshima (in Japanese) and the Senkakus (in Japanese) or Diaoyutai (in Chinese) should belong to Japan.”

“Hot economics” and “cold politics” have shaped East Asia as of late but with escalating tensions in maritime and territorial disputes and tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula, a transition to “cold economics” in the region could have global ramifications. Of course, these issues won’t be solved over night as history has taught us. But as hard as it is, leadership should embrace the mistakes in the past and focus on utilizing the right kind of nationalism: pride in each other’s countries and commitment to improving relations. The event ended with much anticipation from students and participants for further discourse on such topics and reiterated the point that East Asia is a region to keep an eye on going forward.

Go Katayama is a graduate student at the Center for Global Affairs and Vice President of the Student Association for Global Affairs (SAGA). The author would like to thank Mr. Devin Stewart, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and the distinguished panelists for making this event possible.