Building an Asian Century
by Jamie Metzl
Originally published in the The Guardian, July 1, 2009
As Asia emerges from the global economic crisis faster than the rest of the world, it is increasingly clear that the world's centre of gravity is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is equally clear that Asian states are not yet ready to assume the more meaningful leadership in global affairs that will be necessary to ensure that this tectonic shift can make the world more stable and secure than it has been. Asian states have a tremendous opportunity to rise to this challenge.
The signs of Asia's rise are unmistakable. Over the past five years, China's contribution to world GDP growth has steadily increased from one-fifth to one-third, and India's from approximately 6% to 16%. Given their growing footprints on global economics, politics and the environment, it is now impossible to imagine any major international agreement without China, Japan and India on board.
China, in particular, has emerged as the key counterpart to the US in almost all major global forums, as well as international platforms for discussing critical transnational issues, from the six-party talks with North Korea and the G20 to talks about climate change. Some even call for a US-China G2.
Asia's new clout holds tremendous promise. If Asian domestic consumption increases, for example, global economic growth will depend far less on over-consumption by debt-laden Americans. This would help all economies. If Asian countries other than Japan commit to binding caps on greenhouse gas emissions, a global deal on climate change will be possible at this December's Copenhagen summit, even if developing Asia's caps are implemented more gradually than those for the developed world.
Moreover, if China, India, and the ASEAN states take the lead in promoting a just resolution for the people of Burma, or if China proves more willing to press North Korea on nuclear weapons, these states will demonstrate that a world with multiple leading stakeholders can be safer than a world led by a single superpower.
Critics of America's record as a global hegemony make a strong case against a uni-polar world. America's interventions in Vietnam and Iraq, its opposition to the Kyoto protocol and insatiable consumption of natural resources, its role in creating the current financial crisis, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and much else highlight America's flawed record.
Yet America's legacy of global leadership over the past six decades, warts and all, is unprecedented in its relative benevolence and positive impact. America played the lead in creating the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and international humanitarian and human rights law. It resuscitated its second world war enemies, fostered economic development in countries around the world and established a security umbrella that helped Europe and Asia focus more on diplomacy and economic growth than on military competition. It opened its markets and laid the foundations for globalisation and the information revolution, kept sea lanes open for international trade and catalysed the green revolution. The list goes on.
But weakened by the financial crisis, deeply indebted to foreign countries, bogged down in Iraq, facing major challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan and feeling psychologically humbled, the US may no longer be in the same unrivalled position to lead the international community, even under the inspiring leadership of Barack Obama.
Despite the growing promise of a multi-polar world with Asian powers playing a greater role in addressing global challenges and sharing leadership with a weary US, that world does not yet exist. America may be recognising its limits, but no new system has emerged to take up the slack. If Asian states are to play this role, they must do far more to address their own regional challenges and to promote a positive, universal set of norms.
Asian states could do far more, for example, to address the dangerous nationalism that persists in Asia. Unlike Europe, which largely put its historical ghosts to bed after 1945, Asian countries remain mired in 19th-century-style nationalisms that weakens collaboration and make the region more dangerous than it needs to be. China and Japan, Japan and Korea, India and Pakistan, Singapore and Malaysia and many other pairings of states connect on some levels, but remain dangerously divided on others.
Furthermore, Asian states could be far more assertive in addressing humanitarian issues in their own backyard – especially for places like Burma and North Korea – and in taking a lead in international climate change negotiations. The US, for example, provides 50% of UN food aid and pays 20% of the UN's overall costs. China, soon to be the world's second largest economy, pays 0.7% of food aid and a mere 2% of overall UN costs. Japan has shown leadership in all these areas, but few others in the region have demonstrated a similar sense of global responsibility.
Asian states should also strengthen Asia-Pacific regional structures like Apec and the Asean Regional Forum to ensure stronger collaboration on issues of regional and global concern. Although states in the Asia-Pacific region have come a long way in this regard, regional structures are nowhere near as strong as Euro-Atlantic structures. If the 21st century is to be the Asia-Pacific century, they must be.
Until such changes occur, many challenges will fall through the cracks that exist between a strained Pax Americana and a rebalancing world. Issues such as Burma, North Korea, Darfur, Zimbabwe, climate change, and nuclear proliferation all appear to be falling, because they are being insufficiently addressed, into this crack.
All nations must work together to revise our models for international co-operation in a way that incorporates the global shift in economic power. Until this structure emerges, let us hope that America can lead wisely and that other countries, particularly Asia's new powers, will assume more meaningful responsibilities in managing global crises.
Jamie F Metzl is executive vice president of the Asia Society and a former member of the US National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration