China or the US? Make that 'and'
20 June 2010, Straits Times/Sunday Times
That is what Associate Professor Simon Tay says his new book could well be.
But according to him, the changes he is rooting for in the book - Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide From America - must happen.
Having spent time recently in the United States on an Asia Society fellowship, and having travelled within Asia, he has witnessed a dangerous dichotomy: rising nationalism in China and parts of Asia, and growing resentment in the United States against Asia.
Asia is increasingly ignoring America, and the Americans are pointing their fingers at Asia for the mess that was the 2008 global economic crisis.
'At the same moment that Asia is rising, if America was confident and in good shape, you could see that they could both rise together,' said the chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, the think-tank he has headed since 1999.
'But because of the crisis, I think there is a danger that it becomes either-or. It is either Asia rises and America goes down, or America remains dominant and therefore must keep Asia down.'
There are plenty of signs pointing to this divisive trend. Americans are stewing in a post-crisis feeling of having been victimised, even though their leadership recognises that Wall Street is largely the culprit.
'Not all, but some go so far as to say that Asians fed the crisis by our rush of savings into their treasury bonds. Besides the Wall Street guys, the regular Americans have a fair share of blame for us in Asia,' said Prof Tay, 49, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Law Faculty and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
There has also been much anger in the US Congress recently over China's currency and trade practices, with senators blaming the Asian powerhouse's undervalued currency for millions of jobs lost in the US.
With countries in Asia linked to the Chinese production system, 'a whack on the Chinese economy or goods is going to affect all of Asia', he said.
Such sentiments in America towards China are juxtaposed with a surge of pride among the Chinese, who are feeling more and more like they are ready to take on America and the world.
Books like China Can Say No and its sequel China's Not Happy have surfaced, an indication that the Chinese are no longer willing to accept domination by any other power.
While the leaders of China are more circumspect, the relationship between the leaders and the ground on the issue of nationalism has become much closer, he said.
'A Chinese leader today cannot literally revalue the yuan because the Americans told him to do so. He would face bottom-up netizen anger in China.'
Prof Tay spent about three months writing the book, which includes snippets of insight from billionaire George Soros, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria and Mr Victor Fung, group chairman of Hong Kong-based multinational Li & Fung, who also holds a number of civic and professional appointments.
Prior to this, Prof Tay, who attended Harvard Law School on a Fulbright scholarship, has written or edited five other books on international law and public policy.
If Asia goes it alone, the Americans will miss out on a huge growing market. For Asia, too, America will remain an important customer for a long time to come as Asia has yet to figure out how to make its own growth sustainable.
'Don't get fooled by the rosy picture you see now in Asia. A lot has to do with our own stimulus packages which are about infrastructure and government spending.'
On a strategic level, countries like Japan and South Korea still find comfort in having an American alliance and presence in this part of the world, something China will have little choice but to accept.
While China has gone on a charm offensive to reassure its neighbours that its growth will be mutually beneficial, some Americans feel they are ready to disengage.
As it is, many have been questioning the US government's interest in affairs on the other side of the world while the country struggles with record deficits and lost jobs.
Even within Asia itself, there is the potential of tension between countries as they compete for markets and mindshare, said Prof Tay, a former Nominated Member of Parliament.
'If you ask Indians in New Delhi, are you ready to be No. 2, they'll say no. They don't see why they should be.'
The same with Japan, which has been leading Asia for so long.
'We need to find a way where Asians can rise, regionalise but keep cooperative arrangements among Asians.'
To that end, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) can play an important role. Prof Tay believes that Asia needs Asean as a hub which the great powers can tap as a more neutral partner to help defuse distrust and build trust.
'But for that to happen, Asean itself must become a community, capable of really hosting and giving an agenda to the region.'
With the world entering a different phase of globalisation - past the first phase that was Americanisation to what Prof Tay calls 'Global-as-Asian' - finding a new balance will be critical.
Asian presence is growing not just in America but also worldwide, and the average American needs to begin to understand the importance of engaging Asia and seizing the opportunities here.
At the same time, that involves giving up its domination and embracing a more multilateral relationship with this region.
But President Barack Obama's first visit to Asia last year saw him getting knocked in the American press, most infamously for supposedly bowing too deep to the Japanese Emperor.
'I thought he did very well in showing us what a multilateral leader looks like, but perhaps Americans aren't ready for it,' said Prof Tay.
Distraction at home can also derail the relationship from being nurtured well. As it is, President Obama has missed yet another scheduled visit to Indonesia - the third time - because of the BP oil spill.
Prof Tay hopes his book will help readers understand the problem of this division, but even then the changes that will have to take place will not come easy.
'A lot has to do with mindset: China or America?
'Why 'or'? 'And'.'