Asia Carves Out Own Ideas on Political Values

With the collapse of the Soviet threat, Asian nations have drawn closer, partially on the basis of a new anti-Westernism. A political debate is on over democracy and human rights, which some regimes label as Western concepts. Economically powerful Japan, which seeks to take the lead politically, is sometimes suspect among Asians for supporting some Western views. A four-part series concludes today.

A POP song hit the charts in the Philippines last year that told volumes about Asia's current frame of mind. The song's title: ``America Is Not The Only World.''

The words, however, were in English and the music was American rock roll.

The irony of the message not fitting the medium revealed how difficult it is for many Asians to articulate ideas different from the West. But since the end of the cold war and Asia's emergence as an economic dynamo, a new confidence has developed in the region from Bali to South Korea to challenge the supposedly universal values of the United States and other Western countries.

The debate centers on the extent of democracy and human rights in each country. ``Asians say they want to rediscover their roots and revitalize old values such as Confucianism or Islam, and make these more important than Western liberalism,'' says political science professor Chua Beng Huatt at the National University of Singapore.

``But in the meantime, they want to keep economic rationality and good ties with the West,'' he says.

The tension between economic goodwill with the West and political differences was very evident last month during the summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Seattle. Despite the coziness of the fireside chat at a wooden lodge and the summit's sole purpose of creating economic cooperation, President Clinton clashed openly with Chinese President Jiang Zemin over human rights problems in China.

Even the summit itself was seen as ``un-Asian'' because it was organized under a strong US initiative rather than the kind of slow consensus-building many Asians prefer. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad boycotted the meeting, in part to protest the US style.

Last May, Asian nations gathered in Bangkok to issue a definition of human rights that puts more emphasis on social stability and economic development than on individual freedoms. They hit back at Western ``hypocrisy'' on human rights.

That meeting forced Japan, a member of the Group of Seven most industrialized nations, to choose sides between East and West. Tokyo officials, in the end, decided to criticize the so-called ``Bangkok declaration.''

Since then, the US has gone on an intellectual counterattack against the Asian stance, and the consequences of that debate could have wide economic and security effects.

``Some have argued that democracy is somehow unsuited for Asia and that our emphasis on human rights is a mask for Western cultural imperialism. They could not be more wrong,'' US Secretary of State Warren Christopher told a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July. ``The yearnings for freedom are not a Western export, they are a human instinct.''

Mr. Christopher reminded Asians that human rights is a key issue in US ties with several countries in the region, especially Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. The US, for instance, is considering a ``Radio Free Asia'' modeled on the success of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

Malaysian leader Mahathir, the US's main opponent in the debate, has tried to set up an Asia-only group, excluding even Australia.

Still, the Clinton administration seems reluctant to link human rights rigidly to trade access to the US market. ``America never really had the clout to influence Asia. It lost influence on economics and in security, and now only has a moral stance on human rights,'' Professor Chua says.

One reason for the new political debate in Asia is that the region has drawn closer as communism has declined and as the Soviet Union has fallen apart. A new ``regionalism,'' defined in part by anti-Western feelings, has begun to emerge.

China, for instance, has opened ties with South Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore and warmed up to Vietnam, Russia, and India. The big-power clash in Cambodia has been settled. South Korea and Japan have mended differences over their wartime past, and the Japanese emperor has made historic tours of China and Southeast Asia.

The US, meanwhile, has withdrawn its huge military force from the Philippines and started a partial pullback in South Korea.

The new regional linkages are creating common political values, or an Asian ``consciousness,'' says Dr. Noordin Sopiee, head of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Much of the regionalism is based on an explosion of people-to-people contact, such as worker migration and tourism.

In diplomacy, Asian leaders say they are different from the West in using moderation, trust, and slow consensus-building, rather than strong demands, threats, and impatience. The one human rights issue that clearly divides East from West is Burma, also known as Myanmar. A military junta has ignored the results of a 1990 landslide election victory for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and has kept her under house arrest.

Most Asian nations prefer to ``constructively engage'' Burma through dialogue and trade instead of taking the Western approach of diplomatic confrontation and economic ostracism. The six-nation ASEAN is considering an invitation to Burma to become an observer at its next meeting in 1994.

``It is in all our interests to offer incentives and encouragement rather than to attempt a policy of isolation that would only harm the people of ... [Burma],'' said Thailand's foreign minister, Prasong Sooniri, before a trip to Rangoon.

But contrary voices are often heard among Asia's educated, urban elite. ``Governments in ASEAN like to portray themselves as enlightened and progressive, but in neighboring Burma they continue to support a repressive regime that just thrives on gross human rights abuses,'' an editorial in Bangkok's The Nation newspaper stated.

The end of the cold war has revived the issue of just how much one nation, such as the US, can influence events in another nation. ``The traditional notion of sovereignty is being eroded by the influence of television, environmental concerns, and the United Nations,'' says Bilahari Kausikan, director of Singapore's East Asia and Pacific bureau. ``This tension is the defining characteristic of our time.''

``There's a false debate on whether human rights is relative to a country's conditions or whether they are absolute,'' he adds. ``Of course, there are universal values, but the core of the values is smaller than the West believes. The debate is over the way that international norms are set, and that depends on the global distribution of power.''

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