Region full of promise and peril

It is not alarmist to warn that the hopes of an Asian Century could come to naught if differences and mistrust in the East Asian region are not managed well, as Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong did recently. While the region is on the cusp of a "historic opportunity" to drive growth, he said, the lack of trust and a shared vision among Asian nations stands in the way of greater cooperation between countries and gives rise to "heightened nationalism and protectionism". Worryingly, the evidence on the ground bears this out.

In North-east Asia, the mistrust is as much rooted in history as it is in current territorial disputes. Both China and South Korea are deeply wary of Japan's moves under nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to allow its self-defence forces to take part in conflicts beyond its shores. This is so particularly because Mr Abe has come across as revisionist where Japan's history of aggression against its neighbours is concerned. Thus, the trilateral cooperation of China-Japan-South Korea appears to have stalled after the end of 2013 when Mr Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine. And although the three sides have continued to discuss their trilateral free trade agreement despite the chill in ties, the deal is not expected to be concluded by this year as hoped. This is because, apart from the historical issue, all three sides have their own calculations of what they want from the deal that do not always coincide.

The situation in South-east Asia is no less fraught. The setting up of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank under Beijing's leadership means more funds to build much-needed infrastructure in the region to increase connectivity and facilitate trade. However, China's growing assertiveness in its claims to islands in the South China Sea has caused countries to view it with trepidation. Much energy and money are being diverted from building economic ties to beefing up security, with defence spending said to be increasing in the region.

Within Asean, its dream of an economic community by the end of this year is unlikely to be realised fully, given the disparity in development between states and the unwillingness of some to bring down non-tariff barriers.

Add to this the United States pivot to the region and the situation becomes even more complex. A case in point is the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that excludes China and some Asean states. It rivals another that brings together Asean and six of its dialogue partners, including China but excluding the US.

Much about East Asia is promising, but also perilous. It will need the will and wisdom of its leaders to put aside differences and build on their states' common interests.