by Robert W. Radtke
The Straits Times
October 6, 2004
In their first debate, United States President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry put foreign policy front and centre. This reflects how, for the first time since the Vietnam War, national and global security issues are higher on the US election agenda than economic concerns, according to a joint policy poll by the Council on Foreign Relations-Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press.
Mr Bush and Mr Kerry are unmistakable about their views on Iraq and the ongoing war on terror.
But what are their plans for addressing other global economic and security trends that will shape the future of the US in the next five to 10 years, most of them emanating from Asia?
How will the US accommodate China's economic, cultural and strategic rise? Where does India fit into the future of Asia's development? How should we address nuclear proliferation while fostering peaceful development in South-east Asia and Central Asia?
The American electorate needs and deserves thoughtful national debate on these matters.
US security will be profoundly affected by domestic unrest in the Philippines and Thailand; warm (and sometimes hot) disputes over Kashmir, Taiwan and on the Korean peninsula; and historic animosity between China and Japan.
The dominant story line of economic progress in China and India is masking these longstanding and dangerous fissures in the region. Preoccupied by Iraq and the Middle East, we have little attention to spare for Asia, let alone capacity to deal with flare-ups there.
This summer, rising oil prices in the US were largely explained as a reaction to supply concerns in Iraq and the Middle East.
True enough - yet a long-term factor driving oil prices is economic growth of China, India and the rest of Asia. According to the US Department of Energy, China accounted for 40 per cent of world oil demand growth over the past four years. That trend is not likely to reverse itself. Future oil consumption for India is expected to grow rapidly.
Yet in this election year, even with oil at around US$50 (S$85) a barrel, there is no serious discussion yet of the implications of these trends for US energy security.
Rising commodity prices are driven by the same underlying trend. India and China will need more and more raw products to sustain growth and to satisfy domestic demand for better food, housing, and goods. What will happen to the prices of agricultural products, minerals and just about everything else we consume?
Not all of this is bad news for the US. Indeed, some of it is very good news. We have or produce many of the things that China, India and the rest of Asia need and will increasingly buy as their per capita incomes rise. Some estimates put China as the US' largest trading partner within five years, surpassing Canada.
But we are far from prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.
Public discussion on economic growth in Asia mostly focuses on outsourcing, not on engaging the potentially huge market for US goods and services.
Asia is developing on its own track without sustained US attention. Perhaps Asia will successfully manage security matters on its own while it builds up intra-Asia trade links at a quickening pace. But at what cost to US relevance and influence in the region?
To be on the sidelines of security and economic developments in Asia and not at the forefront of shaping them is disastrous for our national interest in the long run.
Home to two-thirds of the world's population, Asia is the most economically dynamic and potentially powerful region in the world. We have to have some skin in the game if we are to remain relevant.
How will the US under a President Kerry or President Bush approach the challenges and opportunities that Asia presents? That question deserves asking and answering before Nov 2.
The writer is a senior vice-president of the Asia Society. These are his personal views.