AN OPINION PIECE
The US is a Pacific power. This was suggested in the mid-1800s, when it expanded onto the Pacific coast, and confirmed at the end of the century when it annexed Hawai’i in the middle of the ocean and conquered the Philippines on the other side of it. America began to play an active role in East Asian affairs, calling for an “open door” in China (equal-opportunity exploitation) and brokering peace between Japan and Russia after their war of 1904-5.
East Asia mattered a lot to America in the 1900s — it intervened in Japan’s imperialist escapade to make sure 1 country didn’t dominate the whole region. Asians settled in Hawai’i and on America’s West Coast, and Asian culture became more familiar to Americans. But American interest in the region gradually weakened. Partly it was the disappointing result of intervening in the Korean War and (much more so) the Vietnam War. Partly it was discouragement after China went Communist, which was a major setback for American foreign policy. Partly it was the result of disengagement from the Philippines after 1946 and Japan after 1952.
But I think it was mostly because stuff in other parts of the world mattered a lot more. Europe has traditionally been America’s main area of fixation — it’s where most Americans come from, after all. The world wars and Cold War ensured that Europe would be its top region of priority for the 1900s. And then there’s West Asia, which was of only marginal interest to America until the 1970s, when first American involvement in Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations and then the Iranian Revolution captivated America’s attention. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, no American president could afford to ignore West Asia, and both George Bush and Barack Obama have been fixated on it, whether by invading and occupying countries or by infiltrating terrorist networks based in the Arab world.
I think it’s time for America’s fixation to shift eastward. East Asia is a far more consequential part of the world on many levels, and it presents America (and the rest of the West) with bountiful opportunities in the years to come — as well as several tricky challenges.
First of all, it’s important to realize that East Asia is big. Taken together, it makes up 52% of the world’s population. Even ignoring the Indian subcontinent — which is sort of midway between West and East — it makes up 32% of the world. North Africa and West Asia, in contrast, include more like 10% of the world. East Asia is simply the arena where the world’s future will be decided. Population trends show that the area will only grow more populous in the future. It’s where most people live and will live.
Big numbers are one thing, but they wouldn’t mean as much if the area didn’t have a robust economy. But East Asia is probably the most dynamic part of the world, too. Most of the countries there are growing at a rate of 6% or more a year. The “Asian Tigers” — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — roared their way into the First World in the ’80s. Malaysia has recently joined them. Other countries — China, Indonesia, Thailand — are still pretty poor, at least by Western standards, but have growing middle classes and thriving consumer economies. For all its economic stagnation since the ’80s, Japan is still the world’s 3rd-biggest economy.
As a result of its tortured involvement in West Asia, America has a low reputation among Muslims. Despite concerted efforts by Obama to fix this, America’s preference for military intervention, its alliance with Israel, its Islamophobia, and its awkward reaction to the Arab Spring mean it still has a lot of work to do. But almost half of Muslims live in East Asia. It’s not usually thought of as a “Muslim” region, and Islam has played a marginal role in the area, but some of East Asia’s biggest countries (Bangladesh, India and Indonesia) have huge Muslim populations. They are by and large moderate and well-disposed towards America. The US would do well to get over its fixation with testy Arabs and prove to Muslims in East Asia that it’s not biased against their religion.
And it’s not just Muslims in East Asia that have favorable opinions of the US — compared to other parts of the world, where opinions of America range from lukewarm to outright hateful, many East Asians have positive opinions about America. It is widely admired as a model for development and political liberty and its culture is familiar to many thanks to its globally influential media. Its occupations of Japan and the Philippines for the most part were benign and fondly remembered; knee-jerk contempt is lacking. I have traveled all over the region and seldom encountered overt anti-Americanism, even in war-ravaged Vietnam.
This being said, East Asia also presents a few challenges to America and shouldn’t just be dismissed as an easy region.
East Asia is a wildly diverse and sprawling region. Unlike places like West Asia, Europe or Latin America, its countries and cultures have minimal common histories. Even within its more culturally coherent subregions, there are frictions and squabbles. Northeast Asia is a classic example: China hates Japan for its imperialist past and the challenge it poses to its own domination. The Koreas hate Japan too for similar reasons. Taiwan mistrusts China and fears an eventual takeover attempt. North Korea menaces both Japan and its southern neighbor with nuclear weapons and bombastic threats. Elsewhere, India has an ongoing rivalry with Pakistan and a nervous attitude towards China. Luckily, these conflicts aren’t urgent crises demanding immediate international attention or anything, but they still need careful and sustained diplomatic attention, preferably from an outside power less weighed down by historical rivalries and nationalism.
The central challenge to East Asia is posed by China. China is the rising power and by far the most important country there. Although I think fears of China aspiring to superpower status are overhyped, it does seem to aspire to regional hegemon in East Asia. Although this is basically inevitable (for starters, China outnumbers Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Southeast Asia combined), it still makes the other countries nervous. China is big, scary and sometimes overbearing. The South China Sea dispute is a good example of the kind of Chinese behavior that keeps Asian leaders up at night. Yet China’s generous and helpful infrastructure investments and economic centrality make it a vital partner for pretty much everyone.
India is the other rising power and an important factor in regional politics, but it’s more concerned with its internal affairs and is hesitant to get involved in foreign relations, especially further east. Japan is a committed enemy of China and an economic and technological powerhouse, which makes it well-positioned to organize countries against China. But neither of these countries can realistically play the role of regional power-broker.
I think it’s obvious that America has a big role to play and should step into it. It has guaranteed the security of the region since World War II, and other than China, East Asia welcomes this. Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, realized this and proclaimed a “pivot to Asia” in America’s foreign policy in 2011. As part of it, they have championed a far-reaching trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that brings together North America, a few forward-looking countries on Latin America’s Pacific coast, Oceania, the developed economy of Japan, Southeast Asia’s star performers (Malaysia and Singapore), and the developing economy of Vietnam. Given how central economics is to East Asia’s agenda, a big part of this is boosting trade links in the region and across the Pacific, but it’s also primarily a way to project American power and enforce American standards. (It’s called a “partnership,” not a “trade agreement,” after all.)
Obama has done other things to pivot to Asia — redeploying the American military to the Philippines, for example, and taking more trips to East Asia — but for the most part I find the rhetoric hard to take seriously. America is still fixated firmly on West Asia. American media coverage of foreign affairs skews heavily westward. A White House insider estimated that 80% of Obama’s National Security Council meetings focused on West Asia. The foreign policy debate in the 2012 presidential election mostly revolved around West Asia. Most discussions of things like East Asian power politics or the TPP are confined to media sources focused on international relations or academia, not the kind of news most people read/watch.
Foreign affairs is not a zero-sum game. I am not suggesting that America somehow drop North Africa and West Asia from its agenda altogether. (I mean, c’mon, it can’t.) America can play a similar firefighting role in West Asia as it does in East Asia. Because West Asians and Africans are more likely to be terrorists, it is understandable that security experts would focus there. The wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq are more urgent than anything in East Asia. This region is also fiendishly complex and incendiary and demands careful diplomatic attention.
But as I argued in an earlier article (which this is sort of a counterpoint to), America spends too much time worrying about terrorism, Arab insurgents, and Islamic fanaticism. In a certain sense, I think because a lot of these flare-ups originated from anger at American intervention, American disengagement makes sense as a corrective. But America tends to blow events in West Asia out of proportion. Why do Americans fixate so much on Iran, which has no nuclear weapons and swears it doesn’t want them, when North Korea has them and threatens to use them? Why does Israel and its interminable, hopeless conflict get so much attention, when India and Pakistan have been fighting for as long, have nuclear weapons, and are plausibly trying to get over it?
As the only superpower, America basically has to pay attention to the whole world. Maybe that’s the UN’s job, but it’s not fulfilling it. Managing West Asian conflicts is important and will divert America’s attention, but it’s time the US finally acted on its words and pivoted to East Asia. It is a demographically, economically, and politically crucial part of the world. It also demands a subtle touch and nuanced diplomacy: slow alliance-building and influence-spreading, so as not to alienate or frighten China more. It’s not the kind of thing that lights up the nightly news, but it’s just as important as firefighting Arab wars — and in the long run, probably more so.
Also, if you’re an ordinary person just wondering which part of the world to study in, travel to, or do business in, consider East Asia. Not only is it a banquet of opportunities, but it’s also the coolest, funniest, weirdest, and most exciting area of the world. Can’t really beat that!
[NOTE: While I wrote this post fixating on America throughout, most of what I wrote can also apply to the rest of the West. Europe has much to gain from strengthening its ties with East Asia too. But Europe, given its geographical position, is much better-placed to deal with crises in Russia and West Asia, and indeed is dealing with them right now. That means it’s hard for me to advocate a reorientation for Europe quite as strongly. Also, Europe is not a Pacific region.]