Image copyright YouTube
“No one is against development. It’s just whether it’s in the future or now.”
When those words were spoken, the landowner who was offering to sell his land for the construction of a mall in Japan appeared incredulous.
“You can’t sell land for such a thing because it’s not part of nature.”
The words – spoken by Toyota truck driver Kenichi Takahashi on a YouTube video – illustrate something of the dilemma faced by the Asia-Pacific region today.
In the past, large developments such as hotels, shopping centres and office towers went ahead because there wasn’t much land to spare.
“Over 10 years, the number of prime acres of land in Japan has doubled from 38,000 to 85,000,” reports Reuters news agency.
Now, as Asia’s economic development increasingly moves out of China’s hands, the challenge has become how to ease tensions without slowing growth and jobs.
“It’s a complex problem, and a big political issue to resolve,” reports John Carlin, of the US State Department.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption At an Asia-Pacific summit in Papua New Guinea, regional leaders are expected to discuss this issue
It has prompted neighbours to assert their territory or set up “kinetic measures” in protests against environmental measures they feel will damage their environment.
To address the problem, Japan said it would redesign its commercial policies and reopen five national forests, one of which was closed because of climate change.
Fellow Asian countries such as the Philippines are pushing to clean up and expand their governments’ green forces.
In some developing countries such as Cambodia, whole roads and houses are built without thought to the damage to rare plant species.
A lack of oversight in China, Laos and Vietnam has exacerbated this problem.
Over the past three years, environmental crimes such as poisoning wildlife and planting fake crops and forests have soared in Laos.
Image copyright Google Image caption The status of wildlife in Laos has been called into question
‘Welcome signs for development’
China has denied accusations of sparking the problem. In a letter to Asia-Pacific leaders ahead of their summit in Papua New Guinea, President Xi Jinping said China wanted to promote economic integration as part of a “new type of great power relations”.
He said regional nations had a “better sense” of cooperation.
It’s easy to see why the trade-focused rhetoric – including China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative – has caught the attention of policymakers across the Asia-Pacific region.
China is investing billions of dollars on infrastructure projects in transport, energy and water schemes, and the flows of official documents has driven many “land banks”, the euphemism for the redistribution of public land.
Land banks, especially those outside the boundaries of national parks, had long been part of Chinese policy.
But the problem has received new attention amid concerns about rising pollution and congestion.
In 2017, the Chinese government responded by banning real estate developers from creating land banks unless they are located inside national parks or involve local renewable energy.
Even those developments which are inside national parks can be closely monitored and restrict development.
China is taking the proposal of a “strategic approach” to managing development, argued Wang Juelong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and author of the report, which was published at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in September.
“Although we want to live with development, it’s hard to let everything go too fast because this could lead to irreparable damage,” Mr Wang added.
The move to boost conservation has come in response to the rising cost of subsidies that were paid for part of the damage that has been done, especially to ecosystems such as the Gobi Desert.
So far, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand have said they will not abandon their full support for development.
But the Asian Development Bank’s Asia Pacific Economic Prospects 2019 report highlights that some progress has been made and a new protocol has been adopted to tackle regional disputes that would otherwise undermine economic integration.
There is also a push by members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) for countries to sign a declaration that includes specific commitments in land use, biodiversity and climate change.
“Developing countries should be ready to open their territory for future development,” says Michael Cucek, director of a new China policy institute at the Brookings Institution.
“That means they need to respect land tenure and water rights.”
But China’s withdrawal from a Pacific trading bloc that would include the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam raises concerns about its willingness to open its vast coastline to the business of exchanging ideas.