- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A gathering of Asian and American diplomats, economists and scholars in Honolulu came to the surprising conclusion that no Asian nation is willing or able to assume leadership in Asia despite the economic and political progress of recent decades.

The Asians and American “Asia hands” agreed that China is not ready, Japan is not willing, India is just emerging onto the world stage, and the United States is preoccupied with Afghanistan, the Middle East and the economy. Moreover, Asian international organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have so far shown themselves to be mostly talk shops.

Most of those in the conference asserted that peace and prosperity in Asia would be best-served by a balance of power, especially between China and the United States. No one suggested that Beijing and Washington forge a condominium of shared power over Asia, but all agreed that armed conflict between the two would be disastrous.

This consensus was surprising because a widening view among Asian leaders asserts that power is shifting from West to East. For instance, Kishore Mahbubani, a prominent Singaporean diplomat and scholar, has explored this thesis in a book titled: “The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East.”

The Asians and Americans in Honolulu met in a senior policy seminar at the East-West Center, a research and education organization funded largely by the U.S. Congress. Under the conference rules, speakers and those who took part in the discussion cannot be identified, supposedly to encourage candor.

On China, an Asian said: “China is not oriented toward foreign policy but is obsessed with domestic issues, somewhat like the United States.” China’s first major venture into international relations — leading the six-party talks among China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States and North Korea to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons — has gone nowhere in six years.

Internal dissension in China was underscored with uprisings in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009. The worldwide economic crisis has hit China hard and driven the government, always anxious about its hold on power, to adopt a 10-point stimulus program. Abroad, territorial disputes have caused fear of China, especially in Southeast Asia.

Japan, still wrapped in the passive cocoon into which it retreated after the devastating defeat of World War II, is constrained by its divisive politics. In the past three years, Tokyo has seen three prime ministers, four foreign ministers and six defense ministers. The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is predicted to lose to the untested Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the election set for Aug. 30.

“The DPJ,” said an Asian, “is a hodgepodge of old-line socialists and deserters from the LDP and thus split. Its leaders lack experience in government and have failed to cultivate the bureaucrats who really run things in Japan. It will have a rough time governing.”

As a potential leader, India was barely mentioned. “India is in the equation for the first time,” said an American, lamenting its lack of attention. A military officer noted that relations between India’s military forces and those of the United States had expanded. “India,” he said, “is getting out and about.”

Some Asians and Americans argued that the United States was declining in power with U.S. forces spread thin around the world and the economy troubled at home. Others disagreed. “Are we seeing the twilight of the U.S. in Asia?” asked an American. His answer: “No. We are not withdrawing.”

Several speakers contended the Bush administration had neglected Asia while the Obama administration sought to reverse that perception. “America has been like Rip Van Winkle, sleeping under a tree,” said an American skeptic. “Now he’s awake, but we have to see what he actually does.”

Richard Halloran is as freelance writer in Honolulu.

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