A dialogue on Identity between East Asia and West Asia was moderated by SFG at the WANA Forum (West Asia and North Africa Forum) in Amman on the 29th of May 2012. This annual event under the patronage of HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan is an oasis that brings together a large number of people from across the WANA region. In a very interactive roundtable discussion that that brought together participants from ASEAN countries and the WANA region, there was agreement that it is not just necessary, but imperative, for both sides to learn from the other.
A Japanese participant stated that the Japanese identity is fostered by a common sense of values that includes attributes such as being good at production and manufacturing along with an understanding that the lack of natural resources requires energy saving and efficiency to be key characteristic. In Japan, human resources are most highly valued.
Reacting to this, a participant from West Asia said that while there are many shared values across the Arab world as well, it is at times difficult to build on them in a constructive manner. There is a focus on one main identity- often that of religion, especially at the community level. The common identity currently being forged with the backdrop of the Arab Spring is more one of rejection of the current status rather than searching for constructive commonalities that can bind. There is a need to build institutional structures and this is being done to some extent, but when threatened, there is a reversion to the narrow identity of tribe, religion, family and ethnicity.
A participant from South East Asia spoke about the capability of ASEAN community to manage multiple identities in a constructive way. While there are obvious power relations in the region, the basic identity is one of inclusiveness rather than dominance, pragmatism rather than emotionalism. This helps in negotiations and removes polarising influences that manages diversity in a manner that is beneficial for the region at large rather than national interests.
The role of political engineering in shaping identities in a predetermined manner was also discussed. Political engineering has played a significant role in East Asia, specially in post colonial times to build a national, as well as regional identity. Proactive policy measures such as the elimination of visa restrictions and creation of institutional mechanisms that have forged and built on contact between people at all levels has made it possible for the regional identity to come to the fore.
Participants from West Asia defined some the key characteristics that need to be built into the national identity including the need to develop the concept of human security so that the rulers and citizens are not in two different camps; need for internal solidarity and self reliance; need to understand the nature of people and the role of the state vis-à-vis the citizen.
There was some discussion on the urgent need in West Asia for integrating the ever growing youth population into structures of consequence and creation of jobs that provide not just livelihoods but also dignity.
There was appreciation from the East Asians about how there is a process of genuine soul searching going on the WANA region to develop a new set of constructive identities. In conclusion, it was stated by many participants that there is a need for greater contact between the people in East Asia and the WANA, including joint research and support for resolving some the ingrained conflicts in the region.