The dangerous post-crisis divide: Simon Tay outlines three possible paths for Asia and America in his new book
- Ooi Kee Beng
The notion of Asia-America relations rests on several conceptual pillars.
One is that while "America" is not an awkward notion, the term "Asia" has always been. But significantly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall dissolved the world's left-right dichotomy, "Asia" seems to have acquired greater definitude as an idea.
Undeniably, China's phenomenal economic success has given Asia - or at least East Asia - a material core from which to imagine separation from the big power across the ocean. In that sense, Asean's initiative to be the "driver" behind Asian integration may be seen as an opportune strategy to deny China that function.
Second, "Asia" effectively means "East Asia". No doubt India is often included but always with considerable conceptual unease. Other conceptual tools have been ventured for describing global economic changes, such as Goldman Sachs' "Bric", coined for Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.
Third, the dynamics and depth of ties between "Asia" and "America" differ greatly in different fields. A political divide has been there since 1949, but with the fall of ideological barriers, the economic intertwining between the two regions has been dramatic, to say the least. A can't-live-with-it-but-can't-live-without-it complex quickly developed.
The nature of this economic interdependence - some would say symbiosis - became a major subject of study in the financial crisis of 2008.
No doubt the recession suffered was short, but what linger are serious questions about the global balance of power, the future of capitalist production and consumption, the excesses of financial systems, as well as macro-economic analysis as such.
The publication of Simon Tay's book, on how Asia and America are to relate to each other in the coming years is therefore a crucial contribution to what is actually a nascent subject.
While the 1997 financial crisis punctured Asian values hubris, leading to profound changes in East Asian politics and economics, the 2008 crisis saw, in Mr Tay's words, the "evaporation" of American soft power. We are thus in new territory.
An Asia with China at the centre challenging American dominance was not really thinkable until quite recently. The nature of this challenge - and how America responds to it - generates many of Mr Tay's suggestions about what both sides need to think about.
Globalisation "will no longer be a one-way process of Americanisation". America cannot be depended upon to manage the global system alone, and yet there is as yet "no agreed-upon structures able to manage the global dependencies".
Major changes in strategic thinking are therefore needed for a solution where America accepts a diminished position in Asia, and Asia rises to the occasion to jointly develop "norms for peaceful cooperation".
Asia's three possible paths, according to Mr Tay, are: The Asia-Pacific Century option, which discourages Asia-going-it-alone initiatives; the Asian Bloc option, with introverted Asian integration, most possibly centred around China (or China and Japan); and the Global Asia option of open-ended interactions with other regions.
The first might end with America re-emerging as the "hub in Asian affairs" and Asia remaining disunited; the second would favour dominance by an Asian power, most probably China; and the third would allow for adjustments and greater Asian influence in world matters.
The last would be Mr Tay's own preference, and the preference of smaller Asian countries who hope to dilute Chinese influence by including as many big actors as possible.
That option, however, leaves a major question to be unanswered: How is an Asia, hesitant on integration, to handle actors that are much more integrated than it is?
China, as a giant integrated polity in its own right, does not have to worry too much about Asian integration policies since its economic growth is strong enough to draw its neighbours into its orbit without any obvious political agenda.
As Mr Tay rightly notes, Asian integration is nascent, and its final form is yet unclear even to the actors themselves.
All sides must realise, however, that this process cannot but occur in tune with America's evolving perception of China, and of Asia as a whole.
Ooi Kee Beng is a Fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.
Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America, written by Singapore Institute of International Affairs chairman and National University of Singapore Professor of Law Simon Tay, was launched in Singapore last night. URL http://www.todayonline.com/World/EDC100618-0000048/The-dangerous-post-cr