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H. Hawksley: Address to International Leadership Conference 2019

Address to International Leadership Conference 2019, Seoul, Korea, May 15-17, 2019


Thank you, Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a great privilege to be here and share some thoughts about security and peace in Northeast Asia, a topic that I have been close to for the best part of thirty-five years and that I return to time and again in my making of films, reporting and writing books about the Asia-Pacific.

On this topic there are two extremes, none of which deliver us the status quo of balanced peace that has held now for some sixty years. But then, as we all know, the status quo cannot continue. One reason, as told to me by a number of Chinese security analysts, is that US troops will be out of South Korea by 2030 and out of Japan by 2049 in time for the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party.

How exactly does China plan to achieve that, what would become of North Korea, and what is America’s role in the region?

The other is that America will weaken its commitment to securing Northeast Asia, resulting in Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons, something I’ve been told could happen with a couple of turns of a screwdriver.

The chances are that we will end up with something in between. But the question is, what will that be and, if we don’t like how things are now, what do we really want? A vision of peace and unity is one thing. Nailing down those devils in the details is something totally different. Just ask the Israelis and Palestinians.

To try to delve deeper I would like to bring in a parallel, albeit totally different situation from somewhere else in the world. I find whenever I travel and I fall into conversation with people who when they learn I come from London ask: “Whatever is happening in your country? Has Britain gone mad?” They are referring to a decision taken by referendum almost three years ago to leave the European Union. The European Union is an economic and political pan-regional institution that has kept peace in Europe for more than sixty years when its predecessor was first formed around the time of the Korean War as a steel- and coal-trading agreement between France and Germany – the idea that trade can stop war. Before that, Europe was the most savage of continents – nations fighting each other and changing borders with routine ruthlessness.

So what has that got to do with Korea, Japan and the United States? Before coming here I was explaining to friends the challenges in Northeast Asia and the relationship between the main players. I was attempting to tackle the Japan–South Korea situation and the unresolved historical grievances when one person interrupted and said: “Have those guys gone mad? They really have to get their act together.”

About four or maybe five, years ago I was privileged to speak at a UPF–Washington Times conference about Asian security. It may have been at this very hotel. We discussed again whether East Asia could forge a formal grouping of shared values to balance the rise of China and – at that time – how the European Union could act as some sort of beacon as to what they might want to achieve.

That moment has passed because the EU is a now a far dimmer beacon with Britain’s departure and the rising authoritarianism and nationalism among its own members. What it has shown is that trade and increased wealth are no longer enough to balance senses of lost dignity, nationalism or whatever. In Britain, this has not been helped by populist trends whereby mainstream politicians use historical myths about sovereignty and nationhood to whip up anti-European sentiment. No longer is this about adjustments to trade and visa arrangements which Brexit was meant to be. It’s become a regional conflict.

Since then, too, China under Xi Jinping is stronger and more confident and the U.S. under President Trump is more detached and withdrawn. We can apportion blame on both sides, but the reality is this is the situation. If Northeast Asia wants to ride through it, it needs to rise to the challenge and handle it itself.

Yet, far from drawing closer, Japan and South Korea have been sniping at each other in a destructively fracturing way as if to kick any prospect of an alliance way out of reach when it is much more crucial that it is done now than it was five years ago.

In laying out what I was going to say today, I found myself repeating the exclamation from London: “Are they nuts? They really have to get their acts together.”

My fellow speakers have far closer insider knowledge than I on the issues of contention. Suffice to say that they are deeply historical. Japanese brutality, the horrendous stories of the comfort women, the disputes of reparations and apologies, these all date back to an era before Japan and South Korea forged a path, a beacon that still shines brightly around the world. Together, they have showed that democracy can flourish in non-European societies and by achieving that, by turning Communism, Fascism, authoritarianism on their heads, by becoming world-class economies, by creating companies that are now global household names, they have climbed mountains, changed the world, and made themselves much more powerful entities than if they had spent time drawing red lines on insoluble bad history.

Now they need to forge ahead further in leading the way to show that small- and medium-sized nations with strong governments and a sense of shared purpose can stand up to a rising China in ensuring democracy and freedom will continue to expand throughout the region.

Over the years, I have sat in on and reported on many ongoing conflicts: Israel-Palestine; India-Pakistan; Serbia-Kosovo, Tamil and Singhalese in Sri Lanka and so on. One common strand is that at the grassroots there is minimal contention between neighbors and friends. Informal and workable peace arrangements have been mapped out in detail. But when they reach a political level of decision-making they are scrapped, usually because extremists on both sides block peace.

Excluding North Korea, Northeast Asia is faced with two levels of threat. One is the failure of Japan and South Korea to forge a substantive defense agreement despite both being formal US allies, and this leads into the second threat in that the absence of such a security mechanism makes it easier for China to exploit America’s allies and pitch a narrative about its global expansion in terms of it being America against China.

In the past year or so, China has forged a detente of sorts with ballasts of Asian democracy, India and Japan, realizing that if it is to win in dominating the Asia-Pacific and easing out the US, then Asian countries need to feel safe and not threatened. Its neo-colonialism, if it is that, will be creeping, slowly and probably non-violently. But its values will be Chinese, its freedoms Chinese, its way of doing things Chinese. 

It already dominates much of Southeast Asia because ASEAN grouping has been too weak and exploitable to put up a strong enough wall, which is why US and Chinese navies are regularly confronting each other now in the South China Sea.

Does Northeast Asia, these exciting, glittering, forward-looking societies, really want to have China divide it like that so that the writ of the mandate of heaven runs above that of the ballot box, democracy, human rights and freedom?

The answer is no, it does not. And if not, it needs to get its act together, stop prevaricating over bad history, sign a comprehensive security agreement, show a vision that will soon bring in Thailand, the Philippines and other Western allies to a regional institution that can balance the rise of China and to some extent Russia and bring them in on Asia’s terms, forged together by the countries of Asia.



To go to the May 2019 ILC Schedule page, click here.