On the New Year’s Eve, the U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law a new round of sanctions that aim to penalize other countries for dealing with the Iranian central bank and importing its oil. Alongside the struggling economies of the Europe (specifically the so called PIGS), these fresh sanctions have caused concern in many East Asian capitals which found themselves subject to an immense pressure with regards to their trade relations with Iran. The unilateral nature of the sanctions notwithstanding, the ever expanding economies of Asia and their dependency on Middle Eastern oil have rendered the sanctions rather unattractive. Consequently, nations across East Asia have been unwilling to align themselves with Washington’s self-declared war diplomacy in the Persian Gulf.
If read correctly, the Western backlash over Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program and the reaction by the countries that now compose world’s engine for economic growth could provide useful insights into the nature of the current state of international relations. Indeed, one can identify the parameters of the post-1945 system and chart the ideological boundaries of it by analyzing the Iran-West standoff. It is interesting and instructive to see the changing tides of international hierarchy. This novel phenomenon is nowhere more visible than the Iranian nuclear issue and Asia’s collective (but not necessarily uniform) response to it, which, as this paper argues, reflect a sense of economic empowerment and political self-confidence.
Kishore Mahbubani’s acclaimed work, The New Asian Hemisphere, underlies the fact that Asia had been the central power in most of the past two millennia, only to be surpassed in the late 1800s due to Western industrialization and colonialism that supplied Western Europe with cheap mineral and labor. For example, in the first century CE, whereas Asia created 76.3% of world GDP, Western Europe created 10.8% of it only. In about 1000 CE, the figures had little changed: 70.3% and 8.7%, respectively. Today, Asia’s share of global GDP stands around 30% and is growing. According to Anoop Singh, Director of the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, based on current terms, by 2030, Asia’s economy will be larger than that of the United States and European Union put together.
Although projections into future based on current trends should be taken with a grain of salt, they, nevertheless, provide useful insights into the growing sense of economic and political empowerment across Asia while the world’s economic center of gravity is shifting back to the East. It follows that hundred years of humiliation was not an exclusively Chinese experience. The entire continental Asia went through a similar process from which, albeit in varying degrees, it is currently recovering. Hence, the prevailing feeling of empowerment in Asia is not an isolated experience.
The surprisingly strong rebuttal by major Asian powers of unilateral U.S. action against Iran is a telling indicator of this sense of empowerment. Although economic concerns occupy a central place in the debate over Iran-U.S. standoff, the countries’ growing confidence in international norm-making also plays a role. In this respect, historical experience and distinct (non-Western) identity shape Asia’s approach toward the issue. It is true that the ultimate outcome of this unique quasi-rebellion against the U.S. –led international regime has yet to be seen. The result might not be all positive, but the steps already taken indicate a crack in the subdued psychologies of the leadership in respective Asian countries.
The return of Asia to the central stage of international politics has proven to be a remarkably rapid process given the fact that only as near as sixty years ago the U.S. emerged victorious from a war that laid part of East Asia and Europe in ruins. However, the past six decades witnessed the successful application of developmental state model, first applied by Japan and then copied by the Southeast Asian states and China, a process of institutionalization and social normalization, a successful regionalization and, finally, the ongoing process of the peaceful rise of China.
It should be remembered that roughly sixty years ago a huge chunk of East Asia was under European and American colonial rule, an experience that is very much similar to that of the Middle East. However, sixty years on, moving through a number of complications (The Korean and Vietnam Wars, The Cambodian-Vietnamese War, The Sino-Indian border conflict, the Asian Financial Crisis, The North Korean nuclear issue etc.), East Asia has showed resilience to domestic and external shocks, and surpassed the Middle East in every aspect of international political economy.
Furthermore, as opposed to the 20th century European experience, how the East Asia has been handling the relative decline of Japan and the absolute emergence of China is remarkable. This is a phenomenon that Western IR theories such as realism, liberalism or constructivism are unable to explain adequately. All these developments (and many more not mentioned here) undoubtedly contribute to the economic and political re-birth of East Asia as a region, which, in turn, make possible for the nations in the region to voice their opposition to the unilateral application of economic sanctions against Iran.
It follows that the U.S.-Iran nuclear standoff has turned out to be a litmus test for East Asia’s heavyweights to gauge the strength of their sovereignty. It is indeed a good indicator that helps to determine whether Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo and Seoul are able to devise independent foreign policies to the tune of their energy interests and irrespective of the U.S. desire of an international alliance against Iran. Early signs (a more detailed account of the responses by four major Asian powers is the topic of another analysis) suggest that these four nations are quite unwilling to bandwagon with the U.S. As might be expected, China and India are more vocal and proactive in formulating counter-measures than Japan and South Korea. Also, political language employed by these nations differs: Whereas China and India often raise blunt objection to the aggressive rhetoric used by the officials in Washington, Japan and Korea attempt to demonstrate solidarity with Washington and attribute their diversion from U.S. position to their economic woes. Particularly Japan, world’s third largest economy with no active nuclear reactor, hopes to elicit Washington’s sympathy and understanding (attributes that U.S. foreign policy seriously lacks under Obama administration) with respect to Japan’s oil trade with Iran. In conclusion, it is interesting and quite instructive to watch major Asian powers, with growing economic and political clout, struggle to develop proper strategies while the U.S.-led drama over Iran’s nuclear energy program continues to unfold.
Serafettin Yilmaz is a doctorate student in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org