Asia won’t go back to being an also-ran


HONOLULU — I am often asked why our think tank is located in Hawaii. Apart from the sun, sand, sea and surf, there is a very good reason: The world looks very different from Honolulu. We’re parked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Tokyo is a lot closer than Washington, D.C. When we look out over the horizon, it’s Asia that shapes and dominates our thinking.

Don’t get me wrong; there are lots of people in the U.S. capital who know a lot about Asia. The Bush administration in particular has an unprecedented number of Asia hands in senior positions. But the mind-set in Washington is still Atlanticist in orientation. The tendency is to see the world through a European filter.

That makes sense. Core U.S. interests traditionally have been situated in Europe. Europe has been America’s preferred interlocutor for international engagement. Most diplomats and academics cut their teeth on European studies or strategic studies that focused on Europe. Europe has provided the logic, history and paradigm for intellectual understanding of the world.

Asia has been a secondary concern, a battleground for other struggles. Asia experts have traditionally been considered merely regional specialists. A few years ago, one of the top Japan watchers in the United States told me: “I’ve always said there were about 200 people in the U.S. who cared about Japan. I was wrong. . . . It’s really only 50.”

That parochialism may be ending. In a recent issue of Newsweek, editor and zeitgeist master Fareed Zakaria noted “there is a new world coming into being — one that America is quite unprepared to handle.” He was referring to “the rise of Asia, led by China, which will fundamentally reshape the international landscape.”

For proof, Zakaria pointed to the region’s increasing economic clout, its huge pool of savings, its growing strength in science and technology, its rising cultural confidence and its political assertiveness. He likened Asia’s rise to that of the U.S. in the late 19th century and warns Americans against ignoring its significance as they obsess over Iraq, Afghanistan and other points in the arc of instability.

Zakaria’s article echoes a recent commentary in the U.S. journal Foreign Affairs. James Hoge Jr., the editor, argued that the world is undergoing “a transfer of power from West to East” that will “dramatically change the context for dealing with international challenges.” He pointed back to the failure of the international system to adapt to the rise of Germany and Japan, which resulted in devastation across the globe more than half a century ago.

“Today, the transformation of the international system will be even bigger,” Hoge said, “and will require the assimilation of markedly different political and cultural traditions.”

Both men agree that the challenge goes far beyond “the rise of China.” China is the most notable development, but it is only part of the story. India too is emerging and aspiring to a larger international role. Japan is reworking assumptions about its place in the region and beyond. Southeast Asia has emerged from the Asian financial crisis to resume its march toward modernity. All of these countries are working separately and together to remake the global balance of power.

Some cynics say we needn’t go back a century for history lessons. They point to events a mere decade ago, and allude to the near hysteria that surfaced in some quarters when Japan looked ready to surpass the U.S. economically, or to announcements of the arrival of the “Pacific Century,” a term that fell out of circulation after the 1997 financial crisis. Their implication is that, as in the recent past, the old order will reassert itself and life will go on as before.

Don’t count on it. Previous episodes were contingent on developments in one country. Today, the transformation is regionwide and broad-based, spanning economics, technology, culture and psychology. Rising self-confidence throughout Asia will ease the transition to a tripolar world order. A setback in one country can only slow change, not reverse it.

Recognizing this change is not enough; the rest of the world must acknowledge its complexities. In other words, the size of the negotiating table is not all that is at stake. The rise of Asia poses fundamental challenges to the way the West thinks about the world.

For example, Chinese strategists insist that their study of history has informed them of mistakes to avoid as China takes its new place: It must avoid cataclysmic changes that have provoked wars in the past. Thus they assure us that China’s rise will be different.

David Kang, an associate professor at Dartmouth, argues that traditional theories of international relations are derived from European experiences and don’t sit easily on Asia. He calls for a reassessment of fundamental assumptions about how states act. His theories are controversial, but they get to the heart of the challenges involved if the West is going to take Asia’s rise seriously: Merely changing the names of key players is not enough. The West must be ready to take Asia on its own terms, and historically that has proven very difficult to do.

The think tank Pacific Forum was established because our founder believed that the U.S. did not understand fundamental issues about Asia and vice versa. Nearly three decades later, the misunderstandings are still profound, and they run both ways. You don’t have to believe in “Asian values” to appreciate that things are done differently in this part of the world.

We spend as much time trying to convince American dialogue partners of the need to see things differently and to work accordingly as we do trying to straighten out Asian misperceptions about U.S. policies. Being in Hawaii makes it easier for us to maintain focus and not lose sight of the bigger issues. And, of course, the beach is a great place for brainstorming.