Since the nineteenth century, the world economy's center of gravity has shifted steadily westward from Europe to North America and now to the Asia-Pacific. As the economic center shifts, the new locus becomes the main theater of global action. From the two world wars to the Cold War, the course of the twentieth century was determined primarily in Europe. In the 21st century, the Asia-Pacific will become this hinge of history.

As this century nears its end, it is distressing to see how few minds have focused on what needs to be done to keep the region on track. The constant attention to individual issues -- Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Spratly Islands -- ignores the dynamics of the bigger picture. In the past decade, the region has taken several big strides forward in terms of economic growth and political tranquillity, with only occasional steps backward, like the Taiwan Strait crisis last year. The Asia-Pacific can still take more steps forward, but only if the key players reach a new consensus on the region's future.

This consensus could rest on three distinct and somewhat unusual pillars. First, the current geopolitical order should be frozen in place. Under present circumstances no better order can be achieved. Second, all key players must develop a common understanding of the region's constraints and realities. Third, they will need a vision that draws out common elements from the region's tremendous diversity and so lay the groundwork for a sense of community.

It is easy to understand how Europe is being brought together by legal compact or how the Atlantic is united by a sense of community. But the Asia-Pacific, being more diverse, requires more consensus-building. The main reason Southeast Asia -- the Balkans of Asia -- has held together is through such consensus-building.

As the single strongest power on the eve of the 21st century, the United States will play a pivotal role. The United States has a window of opportunity to move the Asia-Pacific, and consequently world history, down the right path. But to do so alone would deplete the deep reservoir of goodwill it has accumulated in the region and damage its long-term national interests. During the Cold War, the collective economic growth, military strength, and population of the NATO countries far exceeded those of the Warsaw Pact. But the 260 million people of the United States cannot nudge the 1.8 billion people of East Asia on its own. This will have to be a team effort.


The economic resurgence in East Asia will shift the relative power of the leading players. China is the big question. In the first half of the 21st century, China's economy will almost certainly grow larger than that of the United States. When that happens, the world's established power structure will have to adjust to China's arrival; Washington may no longer be the modern Rome. Some minds there have begun flirting with the idea of containment. Though rarely discussed openly, there is a tendency to believe that since it worked against the Soviet Union, it could work against another communist giant.

But containment is a nonstarter. U.S.-led and unilateral sanctions against Iraq, Cuba, and China have failed to topple regimes or to change their behavior significantly. The United States will probably stand alone if it decides to contain China. The major European states declined to support the 1997 Human Rights Resolution against China in Geneva, nor did they join the American and British boycott of the swearing in of Hong Kong's new legislature. China poses no direct threat to Europe. On the contrary, the vast and rapidly growing Chinese and East Asian economies offer immense opportunities for rejuvenating Europe. Europe is realistic, and it will engage China as a partner.

The 500 million people of Southeast Asia, soon to be united by the expansion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will also serve to check containment. The current generation of Southeast Asian leaders still remembers China's behavior during Mao's heyday, when Beijing supported communist insurgencies against them. But China's rulers now seem to be moving the Middle Kingdom in the same direction as ASEAN states, concentrating on economic development and burying political differences, to the benefit of all.

. . . DON'T FIX IT

Rejection of containment does not mean acceptance of appeasement. If China's rise is causing disquiet among policymakers in Washington, it is similarly unsettling in other capitals, from Tokyo to Moscow, from New Delhi to Canberra.

China should understand why there is a strong impulse in the region to retain elements of the status quo. The U.S. military presence is one key element. There is a consensus in Washington's defense establishment that this presence should not be scaled back. But officials must convince Congress and the American public why this should be so, especially when there is no clear military threat to American interests. The challenge will become even more acute after Korea's reunification, which may happen sooner rather than later.

American interests in the Asia-Pacific region have grown to an extent that is not fully appreciated. In 1996, the United States' overall trade with Asia stood at $570 billion, compared to $270 billion with Europe. Trade matters more and more to the United States. Exports today make up 30 percent of the United States' GDP, up from 13 percent in 1970 and 25 percent in 1992. While headlines often focus on trade deficits with Asia, few Americans are aware that between 1992 and 1996 the value of American exports to Japan grew 47 percent and exports to the rest of East Asia, excluding China, by the same figure. The United States exports more to Singapore than it does to France or Italy, two partners in the Group of Seven. Altogether 11.5 million high-paying American jobs rely on exports to the world. Trade flows are matched by increasing investment and tourist flows that have created a bubbling caldron of economic growth on both sides of the Pacific.

Any exodus of U.S. forces from the Asia-Pacific would damage this spectacular economic performance. The region's economic dynamism rests on a stable geopolitical environment, marked by a general absence of conflict or military tension. While there are flash points -- Korea, the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands, Taiwan, the Spratly Islands -- the prevailing balance of power, though delicate, prevents them from igniting. The U.S. military presence buys time -- both for the region and the United States.

Officially, China frowns on the U.S. military presence, especially after the dispatch of two aircraft carriers at the height of the Taiwan Straits crisis in March 1996 and the interim review of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines in June 1997. But Chinese strategists know the alternatives could be worse. Any breakup of the U.S.-Japan military alliance, at a time when Japan feels insecure about China's rise, would leave Japan with no option but to go nuclear.

Washington must be sensitive to Sino-Japanese relations. It was only a hundred years ago that the Japanese navy sank the Qing dynasty's fleet, forcing the cession of Taiwan to Japan. China will not easily forget its defeat, humiliation, and suffering during this century's Japanese occupation. It will never accept Taiwan falling under the umbrella of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Although the international media portray Japan as pacifist and China as belligerent, the emotions in both countries are triggered by memories of a different era, when the roles were reversed. China must realize that Japan today is developing equally strong fears and suspicions of it. Never before have China and Japan both been powerful at the same time. It will take a while before open and direct dialogue develops between Beijing and Tokyo. This is one reason the United States is still needed.

ASEAN and Australia have also tried to provide opportunities for Japan and China to meet. Australia initiated the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which was elevated to the level of heads of state by President Bill Clinton in 1993, providing the only opportunity for the leaders of the United States, Japan, and China to come together in the same room. ASEAN also initiated the ASEAN Regional Forum, the only regional security forum that includes all the major powers. No other regional security forum enjoys both American and Chinese confidence. Foreign ministers presently meet at the ARF, but the time for an ARF summit of world leaders may have arrived. While APEC is unable to discuss security issues because of Taiwan and Hong Kong's presence, ARF suffers from no such limitations. In December, another historic meeting will take place when the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea meet with ASEAN leaders in Kuala Lumpur, in the first-ever East Asian Summit. With each meeting, distrust is chipped away.

One of the secrets of the region is that the present order serves everyone well. The status quo enables the United States to retain its dominant position, protects Japan and removes the pressure for it to consider unilateral options, and gives China what it really desires: decades of peace in which to achieve modernization. Although no Chinese leader can forsake the national dream of reunifying with Macao and Taiwan, China has far too many domestic preoccupations to contemplate external adventures. To avoid provoking China's ire, the U.S.-Japanese alliance should remain defensive, should not include Taiwan, and should not be extended or changed without careful consideration of regional concerns. Equally important, the United States and Japan must continue to adhere, in form and spirit, to the one-China policy they declare to be official policy. As long as the world, especially the United States and Japan, respects the one-China policy, China will not make waves.


As the region navigates its way into the next century, policymakers must recognize the realities and constraints in the Asia-Pacific, the second pillar of the plan for the area's continued progress.

The region must accept and adapt to how policy is made in Washington. It is not made on the basis of wise, carefully considered choices, but is, rather, the product of public debate, private consultations, and much disarray. Long-term interests are overridden by the short-term interests of managing the media agenda. Long-overdue bilateral visits, such as between the leaders of the United States and China, are hostage to scandals, confirmed or unconfirmed. A wounded presidency, more the rule than the exception since Lyndon Johnson, further complicates matters. And it is on this axis that world history turns.

For a start, East Asian policymakers must accept that the days of the 1950s and 1960s, when American wealth seemed endless and Uncle Sam reached out generously to the Third World, are over. The only way to anchor the United States in a positive relationship with the region is to demonstrate how much it benefits from its friends in the east. Japanese officials seem unable to understand the contradiction between their economic policies (which alienate Americans, fairly or unfairly) and their security policies (which welcome Americans). These contradictions need to be resolved.

But the United States, in turn, must accept that it cannot turn back the clock of history. America cannot turn off the economic explosions it helped begin in East Asia. Indeed, like a chain reaction, the dynamism will continue in Asia until most East Asian countries approach the standard of living of industrialized countries. And economic growth has ignited cultural confidence in East Asian minds. The Asian renaissance is here to stay, with or without American involvement.

No government in the region will swallow a suicide pill, no matter how sugar-coated. For the most part, American human rights policies are the result of a benign impulse to improve the lot of the rest of mankind. But their selective application suggests that they are based at least partially on realpolitik rather than universal moral considerations. Although the governments of China and Vietnam distrust each other, they have a united response to American efforts to pry open the government they have in place. They do not see the choice as Americans see it -- between dark repression and enlightenment. Rather, they regard the alternatives as the chaos of the past and a future anarchy, resembling the former Soviet Union, if change is too hasty.

The region must also accept that the march of technology is irreversible. The Internet, fax machines, and satellite TV have opened up every society in the Asia-Pacific, with the exception of North Korea. The East Asian middle class, whose numbers will soon approach 500 million, is developing an understanding of American society's strengths and weaknesses. Its members can make informed choices about the kind of society they want to create for themselves.

With expanding trade, investment, telecommunications, telemedia, and travel flows, the Pacific Ocean is shrinking to a pond. Interdependence will steadily increase. Initially, East Asians will need U.S. markets, investment, and technology to grow. But as their markets expand, the dependence will be mutual. Competition among Japanese, European, and American multinational companies will be decided by who wins the fastest-growing markets in East Asia. If Caterpillar loses the Chinese market to Komatsu, it will lose more than just one market; it will lose the stream of sales needed to upgrade its technology and competitiveness. Performance in the East Asian marketplace will make or break the next generation of multinational corporations.

This interdependence is perhaps the most important reality for key players to acknowledge. The United States can create turmoil in the region with a sudden military withdrawal. Japan can cause chaos by halting the purchase of U.S. Treasury bills, as Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto recently mentioned publicly. China can raise fears by turning inward. ASEAN can shift the geopolitical balance by leaning to one side or another. With interdependence, a common understanding of realities and constraints becomes essential.


Leaders must forge a shared vision that will pull the two sides of the Pacific together. Given the divisive debates of recent years, especially between the United States and Asian countries over democracy and human rights, finding common elements that would appeal to the idealism and interests on both sides of the Pacific may seem impossible. The Asia-Pacific will take some time to realize the sense of community that has been established across the Atlantic. But a failure to do so may lead the region to drift apart.

The Asia-Pacific faces the danger of a split down the middle of the Pacific Ocean, creating an East-West divide. Theoretically, the odds are in favor of this outcome. But those who live and travel in the region realize that a new order is emerging. While governments and newspapers highlight differences, the quality of people-to-people relationships are bridging the cultural gaps, even between the United States and China. Tens of thousands of Chinese students have returned to China after studying in America, and it is these thousands who are moving up the political ladder, assuming key posts as mayors and vice ministers.

When this generation of Asia-Pacific residents gathers, whether they are American and Chinese, Australian and Indonesian, Japanese and Thai, there is little discomfort or distance. They do business with each other with ease. It is not uncommon for a Hong Kong developer to build a shopping center in Jakarta, with the architectural design done in Vancouver. Or for a Singapore shipping line to shift its accounts department to Manila while acquiring a second shipping line in California. These growing interactions lead to conversations among people from all corners of the Asia-Pacific, in which they speak readily of the strengths and weaknesses of their respective societies.

One might expect these conversations to be peppered with arguments over democracy and dictatorship. Instead, people compare notes on the problems they have with their own governments and societies, and it turns out that all share a desire for good governance. If the region's goal were good governance rather than one form of government, this shared ideal could be a key element for building a political consensus in the Asia-Pacific. After all, no society has yet achieved a monopoly on good governance.

If measures like political stability, economic growth, poverty alleviation, and increasing life expectancy and educational levels were the standard, most Asia-Pacific governments would score well. Impartial reports, like those from the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, can serve as the basis for objective evaluation of governance. One of the most hopeful signs is how closely governments in the region watch their ranking on world competitiveness tables. They recognize that closed societies cannot compete well; nor can those engaged in civil war and conflict. ASEAN’s decision not to accept co-Prime Minister Hun Sen's seizure of power by force in Cambodia in July showed that minimum standards of good governance are being established.

Private conversations also reveal a common aspiration to live in a society marked by the rule of law. Most people in the Asia-Pacific welcome the principle of equality under the law, which is the foundation of Western societies. East Asians worry about arbitrary justice, still prevalent in many parts of the region. Indeed, for many East Asian societies with lingering feudal traditions, the introduction of the rule of law could have revolutionary implications.

China's decision to work toward a modern legal system with due process, an independent judiciary, and a modern penal and civil code is a remarkable development. It represents a major departure from both Confucianist thinking and Maoist ideology. If North Americans and East Asians felt the same comfort in the rule of law as they moved from city to city, that could prove one of the strongest bonds for the region.

The extension of domestic law could be matched by an equal acceptance of international law. The Asia-Pacific will take some time to achieve the stability of North America or Western Europe. Unresolved differences like those in the South China Sea are volatile. But the region can learn from ASEAN, which, despite the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and political diversity in Southeast Asia, has kept peace among its members for decades.

Another strong strain in the region is the shared objective of economic liberalization. ASEAN has announced the goal of an ASEAN free trade area by 2003. In the very first year of implementation, 1993, trade among ASEAN members grew 40 percent. APEC has set goals of 2010 and 2020 for free trade among developed and developing members, respectively. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky has mentioned the possibility of exploring free trade areas not just up and down the Americas but even across the Pacific, beginning with Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. It is clear that free-trade agreements are the way of the future. The challenge is to strengthen and extend the web.

Shifts in power are usually accompanied by conflict, not consensus. But the Asia-Pacific region can learn from history. The Treaty of Versailles after World War I failed because it tried to block an emerging power, Germany. The same mistake need not be made with China. New powers must be accommodated, not contained. Adjustments must be made. In this day and age, when the ideas of the Enlightenment have spread to all corners of the globe, the adjustments need not take place on battlefields. The world can move to a new order in which societies can compete in social, economic, and intellectual fields, and in which those best able to harness the strengths of their entire populations are most likely to triumph. If the Asia-Pacific is to defy the historical odds and make a smooth transition from one order to another, a new consensus must be forged soon.

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  • Kishore Mahbubani is Permanent Secretary (Policy) of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These are his personal views.
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