Will Crisis Divide Asia from America?

Simon Tay addresses "the India-China equation," and conflicting visions of American leadership, in Hong Kong on Sept. 2, 2010. (3 min., 24 sec.)
Simon Tay addresses "the India-China equation," and conflicting visions of American leadership, in Hong Kong on Sept. 2, 2010. (3 min., 24 sec.)

HONG KONG, September 2, 2010 - Asia and America are facing divisive trends that will force them to recalibrate their previously interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship, observes Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. He told the Asia Society Hong Kong Center that as a result, it was critical that Asia and America considered a shared future rather than reverting to hubris or isolationism.

"Before the global financial crisis, both sides of the equation, US and Europe, and Asia, were going up. This win-win economic interdependence was felt strongly, but that has now changed. I hope that Asia will grow and mature, but I don't believe we are ready to go it alone. I think we can't go back either. The old status quo, of a very dominant America and a very subservient Asia, has gone. We have to look forward to a kind of new relationship."

Tay noted that despite President Obama's sentimental interests and strategic intentions, the US will continue to be distracted by domestic priorities at the expense of increased engagement with Asia. "We face, in America, not just an economic phenomenon but also a political phenomenon--a country that seems to have more doubts than ever before." Tay attributed this crisis of confidence to an erosion of America's soft power, itself the result of domestic fatigue over American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and an inability to resolve flashpoints such as North Korea and Iran. Domestic concerns are also at the fore, given the proximity of the upcoming mid-term elections. 

Meanwhile, Asian regionalism has been growing: "Since the Asian crisis, the region has not just recovered but found ways to cooperate more deeply than ever before. We have persisted and drawn strength from crises. Asia is coming together, and--excluding the East Asia Summit, where America might again be in the frame--much of this Asian regionalism has been without America."

China's "charm and power" is also of note. Tay cited China's regional aid and assistance program, the economic potential "that every country in Asia wants to tap into," and its brewing political and cultural influence.

As a result of these trends, Tay underscored: "The future is that America will relatively be less powerful. America has great reserves and great resilience, and should bounce back. It may recover, but the rest of us are going to catch up. In this new future, the easy answer for Americans might be a sense of isolationism. For Asians it might be the reverse: a sense of hubris, that having weathered this crisis, having developed regionalism, we truly are ready to be our own region."

Tay, however, urged Asia and America to consider a shared future, citing mutual economic and security imperatives. He envisioned a future in which "America is engaged but no longer number one. It means that we have to continue our efforts at Asian regionalism, even as we recognise our rivalries and potential flashpoints. America is an essential, important north star in our region, it has provided stability, it has been the guarantor. Like it or not, the stability that we have enjoyed so far has been built, in part, on the American presence. And I think that stability will come in for some shaking. The future, however, will not be the same as the past--or even the present."

Reported by Natali Pearson, Asia Society Hong Kong Center