As the book title suggests, Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America, author Simon Tay looks at the changing relationship between Asia and the United States in the period following the global economic crisis of 2008. Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), is not playing the role of a cheerleader. He notes that following the Asian crisis of 1997, the relationship between America and Asia has been an interdependent economic one. However, the recent global economic crisis might have widened the gap between the two and both may end up poorer as a result. Nevertheless, the central tenet for the book is not to rub salt into this wound. I believe we are shifting and we have to understand the shifts, and to accommodate them, said Tay at a recent talk organised by SMU's Wee Kim Wee Centre.
Division between America and Asia would mean more than just lost economic and business opportunities. Tay believes that stability for Asia and the stature of the United States will be compromised as well. This is because the influence of the United States on Asia has erstwhile provided the foundation of stability for the region, a bulwark against the spread of communism during the Cold War and, afterwards, for the promotion of democracy and protection of human rights. Trade and investments have also marked the relationship between America (which stood for freer markets) and Asia. Tay recognises that for various reasons - such as the waning of the US influence and engagement in Asia, coupled with increasing Asian regionalism - the status quo in the Asia-American relationship cannot be sustained.
On one hand, the United States faces more challenges and limits as it goes forward in the wake of the crisis, and of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but on the other hand, Asians themselves increasingly feel that they need to be more self-sufficient and balanced, as a region. Tay believes that challenging the status quo does not have to mean a greater divide between Asia and America. Both sides must recognise the need to rebalance their ties, not only in economic relations but also in the political and security arrangements for the region, he said, adding that there will be a new global order in both economies and politics and potentially, an inflection point in the shift of power between the United States and Asia.
The book also looks at the global position of the United States, following the subprime mortgage financial crisis which, as Tay noted, has redoubled the predictions of American decline and Asian rise. Here, he provides implications for Asians, Americans and the rest of the world. One is the likelihood that the peace the region has known and depended upon could be cut short due to intra-Asian rivalries; namely with a nascent Chinese power on one hand, and Indian and Japanese rivalries on the other. Nevertheless, Asia Alone does not prescribe that Asians should be happier with regionalism, not does it suggest that the crisis will lead to an Asia-America divide: Indeed, this book does not see the rise of Asia as being irresistible and inevitable but instead as contingent on many factors, including the global and regional context for peace and growth.
Betwixt and between
In the opening chapter, Tay elaborates on the interdependence between America and Asia up to the financial crisis of 2008. Comparing the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global recession of 2008, Tay notes that the rules that had applied to Asia in the first crisis did not, in this second crisis, apply to America. For instance, the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis saw a tightening of money supply and raising of interest rates as a condition for IMF help; whereas in 2008, interest rates were lowered to ease the supply of money. After the spectacular collapse of Lehman Brothers and the near-death of several other storied names of Wall Street, no other banks were allowed to fail, and governments had to inject the billions in taxpayers' money to recapitalise the banks instead. Tay argues that between these two crises, Asia and America have drifted apart politically, and this was made worse by a series of omissions by the Bush administration. And so, a post-American Asia emerges, not by choice, but as a consequence of bad decisions.
The next chapter delves into the post-1997 Asian regionalism that followed. Tay highlighted an incident at the 1998 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, where then-president Bill Clinton did not attend, sending his deputy, Al Gore, instead. At the formal dinner to mark the occasion, Gore went against the grain of diplomatic niceties with a snappy speech, calling for democracy in the region using doi moi and reformasi, but in the wrong context (thus revealing his ignorance). Then, when he promptly walked out, America's arrogance was there for all to see.
Gore's behaviour was one of the US administration's most jarring missteps in alienating its Asian partners. That same year, Malaysia convened the first meeting of the ASEAN Plus Three, which was viewed as a strengthening of Asian regionalism - by Asians, for Asians. This development was not the product of that one speech, of course. Following the Asian financial crisis, many have come to believe that the heavy-handed prescriptions by the IMF were ineffective and even counterproductive. Washington was seen as the agenda-setter of the IMF. Another factor that brought Asians together, Tay notes, is the sense that APEC had failed to respond to the Asian crisis, and that the US and other major economies had ceased to regard APEC as of being sufficiently important to be used as a mechanism for enabling and managing economic cooperation and integration between APEC members.
Absenteeism played a part in signalling US disinterest as well. The Bush administration was so focused on its agenda against terrorism that it was far less attentive to Asia's own issues and diplomatic processes, Tay wrote. For instance, then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice skipped two out of the three annual ASEAN Regional Forums. Then-president Bush himself cancelled a first-ever summit with the 10 ASEAN member countries which he had earlier agreed to attend.
The drift in the US-Asia relations that started in the first crisis of 1997-98 has not been remedied in the decade-plus afterward, Tay noted. Despite some achievements, by the time the crisis of 2008 broke, Asian had far less engagement with and empathy for the United States than they'd had a decade earlier. And so, at the start of 2008 - before the recent financial crisis became full-blown - there were already talks of a decoupling between the economies of the US and Asia. Asia's indigenous growth - especially in the larger economies and markets of China and India - was so significant that it could offset or even override any downturn in the United States.
Putting two and two together
Tay singles out China and ASEAN as key parties that brought the region together. Japan and others in the continent have had less influence, while at the same time, the partnership between China and ASEAN has been neither deeply sufficient nor stable. He notes further that the region has had tensions and rifts that cannot be managed by China, ASEAN, or any other combination of Asian powers.
One of these is the still touchy Sino-Japanese relations. When former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni war shrine, which includes 14 class-A war criminals, it triggered protests from China and South Korea. China even went ahead to call off summits and high-level exchanges with Japan during Koizumi's term in office. Even within Southeast Asia itself, there are the issues of territorial disputes that present lingering problems and a potential for conflict. Amid all these, Tay says, there is a sense that Asia needs to keep Americans engaged in the region, even if their involvement creates more complexities.
The next question to ask is whether America even wants to engage Asia. Tay opines that America does need Asia. The rise of Asia can help drive American recovery and growth as long as the economies remain linked and American companies find ways to grow in Asia. But, he cautions that a weak and shaken America will be likely to see greater protectionist sentiments against trading with Asia, and against allowing more influence and investment to flow from the region into the United States. At the SMU talk, Tay noted: Globalisation (to Americans) has an ugly face, and probably an Asian face.
Time to recalibrate
In the second last chapter of Asia Alone, Tay outlined the emerging relationship between Asia and America and new balances that must be negotiated. It would depend on whether they can envision a future together rather than apart. For the United States, the challenge is to embrace this new world even with some loss of relative power in order to ensure its prosperity in the future; and for China to recognise that as a major player on the world stage, they have to accept the risks and responsibilities that come with such a position. As for the rest of Asia, Tay says countries have to develop stronger ties with both rather than playing invidious games of bandwagoning.
Asians have to think both as regionalists and globalists. But, compared to 1997, Asians must now demand that global institutions be more open to their participation, ideas, and leadership, says Tay. In this regard, the US can play the role of mentor. Given the new eventualities of the post-crisis world, both sides will have to recalibrate their expectations and hence their actions, in order to find a new balance in the relationship. For instance, the US has to accept that it can no longer manage the global system unilaterally. He adds: Globalisation will continue, but it will no longer be a one-way process of Americanisation or Westernisation. It will be more of a two-way process, something we might call Global-as-Asian.
While there have been many books and essays that talk about the decline of American power on the global front and the dawn of the Asian century, this book situates that discussion in view of the hubris and triumphalism that exist in certain quarters; that Asia should not discard America in the post-crisis future. Yet, at the same time, Asia Alone contends that the US should learn to accept that while it is still the world's superpower, it cannot be the sole power to a changing global system. I hope there will be a shared future, but there has to be a lot of thinking. It has got to be a lot more of an equal relationship, he concluded.