Just like Europe in the late 19th century, east Asia is experiencing a period of extraordinary industrialisation, economic growth and arms build-up. Warships have been deployed to mark positions on territorial disputes, chauvinism and national stereotyping abound and crucial countries fail to deal adequately with—or learn from—the past. In Europe such developments ended in disaster. Is Asia repeating Europe's mistakes?
Europe overcame its war-prone past through the process of community building and today has established internal peace by working in unison towards two goals. The first was economic integration, an approach that Asia has emulated with extraordinary success, resulting in unprecedented intra-regional trade, transnational investment and networks of multinational production. But this economic interdependence is no guarantee against disastrous escalation of conflicts. Given the region's present economic interdependence, war in Asia would be even more disruptive and costly than it was in 20th century Europe. Will that prevent governments from unleashing a military conflict? Remember that the first world war broke out amid Europe's most advanced international trade integration and that, as Europeans know all too well, chauvinism is capable of drowning all rationality.
Europeans put their relations on a radically different footing by basing their policies on three premises: first, every nation must honestly and credibly face its wrongdoings and failures of the past; second, a clear distinction must be made between the actual guilty parties and the nations they came from; and, third, between the guilt of the perpetrators, now mostly dead, and the surviving generation who are responsible for preventing a repetition. It is perhaps understandable that facing historical facts is painful for some, but it is hard to understand why the honour and memory of people long dead is more important than the future of the living and their chance to live in peace and prosperity
The reconciliation between France and Germany and later between Germany and Poland paved the way for others to follow. Much was done jointly, for example by establishing common commissions to review schoolbooks, organising youth exchanges, or promoting city partnerships. Demonstrative gestures and credible acts of asking for forgiveness were crucial. In this respect China, Japan and Korea should play a role similar to that of France, Germany and Poland
What mattered particularly in Europe and what is missing in Asia now is a transnational consensus among governments and societal elites to combat nationalism as it existed in Europe. On the contrary, nationalist tendencies are being fostered by governments. In a mistaken belief in the short-term gains in such policy, they neglect the long-term cost of conflict they are likely to induce. Europeans owe their success partly to governments choosing to ignore extremist voices in partner countries as expressions of minorities that should not derail co-operation and reconciliation.
Moreover, as Europe has shown, the process of reconciliation and political co-operation is not a one-way street. Positive gestures should be acknowledged and rewarded by the other side. On the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan did not visit Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan's war-dead. Instead, by attending a secular ceremony with Emperor Akihito while apologising to Japan's wartime victims, he did exactly what many Asians had hoped and asked for. But this gesture will only work if the outstretched hand is seized and neighbours such as China and South Korea react positively.
Using the leeway gained from his recent poll victory, Mr Koizumi could now make a courageous step in this direction. Though his visit to Yasukuni Shrine this week took place in a semi-official manner, it has regrettably pointed in the opposite direction and unleashed the predictable cycle of accusations and resentment. Asia's achievements towards economic integration and interdependence are now threatened by rising political tensions and nationalism in the region. Acts of reconciliation and co-operation by governments and elites are therefore urgently necessary to strengthen community building. As Asia becomes increasingly important to global peace and the international economy, the world can only hope for such a development.