by Vishakha N. Desai
Originally published in the Christian Science Monitor, January 28, 2005
A US citizen born in India, I happened to be there when the tsunami disaster struck, and saw firsthand how the generosity of the American response was received by South Asians. US media attention and outpouring of American support was admirable; images of the US military leading humanitarian relief efforts made me proud. But I also encountered wariness about the level of genuine long-term US engagement and leadership in the region.
It was understood that American media stars would leave and America's attention would waver as other stories, such as the approaching Iraqi elections, dominate the news. Just when the real work of rebuilding must begin, and the emotional devastation will manifest, America will inevitably turn its gaze to the next thing.
Or will it? Can the US learn from this disaster to develop a longer span of attention to life in Asia?
The need for sustained US engagement was apparent to Asians even before the Dec. 26 earthquake triggered the deadly wave. Just prior to the tsunami, I traveled throughout Southeast Asia as the new president of the Asia Society, a US-based international organization. Across the region, from Thailand and Singapore to Indonesia and Malaysia, I heard one thing loud and clear: Asian regionalism - trade and intra-Asian political and cultural cross-currents - is expanding as never before, while the US sits on the sidelines.
Distracted by terrorism and the Middle East, Washington seems content to watch its influence in Asia decline while China fills the void. My Asian colleagues reported this resignedly, yet not without some yearning for a stronger US presence.
The $350 million US government commitment to tsunami relief and heroic logistical efforts are historic, though not the world's largest, and not enough by themselves to transform the emerging politics of the region. Japan pledged $500 million, and other nations' per capita contributions are much higher than the [$1.20] per American offered by the US. China pledged $85 million in government aid (outbidding Taiwan's $50 million) and dispatched large medical teams and other help, for example working with Japan to rebuild tourism in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries. Though compared with Washington, Beijing cannot yet mount massive relief efforts far from its shores; China's official aid, plus its unprecedented $45 million in private donations, illustrates its new and strategically powerful commitment to engaging its neighbors.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao personally flew to Jakarta to attend the post-tsunami gathering of ASEAN (once hostile to China) and proposed an international meeting in Beijing on a permanent tsunami warning system that would look beyond the results of the United Nations meeting on disaster preparedness in Kobe, Japan. Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu kicked it off this week, saying "We should take cooperation in earthquake and tsunami early warning as an opportunity and extend it to a wider range of collaboration."
The China Daily editorialized that tsunami coverage "has surely promoted a recognition throughout South and East Asia that China is a good friend in time of need."
China is consciously showcasing itself in this role. It seems to understand that beyond the dollar amount of its relief pledge, the true test of regional leadership in 21st century Asia will be sustained, proven engagement, demonstrated as much by ongoing interaction as by the flow of aid.
Though not a relief organization, the Asia Society for the first time in its 50-year history decided to raise and direct money to NGOs in tsunami-stricken areas. But beyond immediate financial help or even physical reconstruction, responding to the disaster's longer-term cultural, political, spiritual, social, and economical impacts requires more than sending money, vital as that is. It requires that American government, media, and citizens learn about modern Asian life and become personally engaged, sustaining and developing a stronger focus and basis for empathy, long after the media spotlight wanes.
Let us hope that the shock of the tsunami will spark this commitment in Americans: to follow and support ongoing efforts at rebuilding sustainable lives for the hundreds of thousands affected, and in the larger context, to recognize America's obligation to deepen its understanding and engagement with the Asia Pacific region, where more than half of the human race resides.
Vishakha N. Desai is president of the Asia Society.