17 October 2012

Playgrounds and Players in Asia

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressing the first Asia Cooperation Dialogue Summit in Kuwait, outlined his vision for the region in the following terms:

This continent of Asia cannot be the playground of other forces, who seek our wealth, our assets of nature and human resources. Our progress must draw from the best of our own cultures and while learning from the best of others who come with genuine friendship. We are seeing the dawn of the Age of Asia. We must together see it bring new light to a troubled world dominated by the grave errors of other continents.’

Asia has been playground for many, across the centuries. The British, French, the Danes, Portuguese and Americans of the United States have put their dirty paws all over Asia, massacred thousands of people, ravaged cultures and communities and plundered resources.  The ‘West’ is rich and it’s no secret where the wealth came from.  It was not Asia, true, but the Plunder of Asia did not end with ‘independencies’ or troop withdrawal.  Plunder was replaced by Smart-Plunder.  If memory fails, then think ‘Afghanistan’. 

So the President is correct.   Asia should not be anyone’s playground, or dumping ground for that matter.

Even as the Long American Century (to use a term coined by Giovanni Arrighi almost twenty years ago to ‘periodize’ the play and control of power and money) draws to a close the USA’s more than finger-poking presence all over the globe is too in-one’s-face to ignore or pooh-pooh away.  There are fairly naked guns-in-booty-out examples (Afghanistan, Iraq and the elegantly executed ‘Arab Spring’) and there are UN resolutions, arm-twisting in international forums, aid-for-policy buy-outs, open and surreptitious bribing of officials and politicians.  Getting dirty fingers out of regional-pie is thus easier said than done.

There’s another part to this ‘playground’ business though.  There is an implicit notion that it’s an outsider that is messing things up.  True, history has shown that when we draw deep from history, heritage and culture, the outcomes tend to be more benign than when we uncritically purchase foreign blueprint, but even in some happy in-between of such choices we need to keep in mind that territories are not and never were islands.  There is engagement and therefore terms of engagement.  Resources and manpower alone won’t ensure a good bargain.  It’s about what we buy and what we sell, what we need and don’t, and the wisdom to make correct choices.

There’s a third part to this story.  Locals also play.  There are playgrounds and playgrounds, players and players, winners and losers. Not all of them are ‘foreign’.  For centuries the poor and dispossessed have been played. For centuries their access to resources has been tampered with.  They’ve been robbed outright and by law and lawsuit, threat and execution of threat, promise and contract breach.  There are structures that enable this kind of playing which, although may have been constructed by invader for invader-purpose but which survive invader-quit simply because they are convenient appendages for resource extraction and labor exploitation by people who look local, act locally but do what foreigner did (and does).   

Regional solidarity is good.  If we had, for example, a SAARC Security Force, the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have been resolved a long time ago.  It is good for Asia to come together. No, Asia will not win the Nobel Prize, but that piece of humbuggery won’t matter.  However, at the end of the day, thumbing a collective nose at the West and having European leaders eat humble pie won’t mean much if Asians starve in their millions. 

President Rajapaksa has opened a debate.  That’s good.  It’s not the end of the story.  That’s good too.  For what we have is a double-whammy: playgrounded by the invader and playgrounded by people who look like us, our fellow citizens, our fellow Asians.  That’s not good.