America is on the verge of losing a century. Having done more than any other power to spark the rise of Asia, America should be sailing into a century of shared destinies and shared prosperity with it. The 21st century should be the Asia-Pacific Century, with both sides of the Pacific Ocean pulling together to make it the most creative and productive century in the history of man, a natural result of the fusion of rich civilizations from East and West. Instead, America appears to be (almost absentmindedly) digging a deep ditch to separate itself from Asia. With or without American participation, Asia will take off. But without American participation we will have an Asian Century instead of an Asia-Pacific Century.
Asia will take off because of a remarkable burst of cultural confidence. Most young Asians, from China to India and from Korea to Malaysia, believe that conditions have never been better both for them and for their societies to thrive. They wonder how their ancestors could have misused so many centuries. The paradox is that America has done more than any other country to engender this cultural confidence, and by so doing has accumulated huge reservoirs of goodwill in Asia. So why, then, are Americans and Asians drifting apart?
The explanation involves a complex story, but one with an ultimately simple plot, at whose center is the nature of American power. U.S. power once aligned with Asian interests and aspirations; hence its more benevolent aspects often reached Asian shores. Since the end of the Cold War, however, American and Asian interests have begun to diverge, bringing Asia into contact with less benign aspects of American power.
One critical point that few Americans, including leading policymakers, have grasped is the degree to which America’s decisions intrude into the lives of the peoples of the rest of the world. This is a result of a huge structural shift: the world has shrunk. The term “global village” has gone from being a cliché to becoming a reality. Yet American power has expanded, not shrunk. Thus, most occupants of the global village see decisions that affect them being made by and skewed in favor of the richest house in the village. Resentment in the rest of the village is a perfectly natural consequence.
A few examples may illustrate this point. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 had a wrenching and protracted impact on many Asian societies. Asians themselves bear most of the blame for this crisis, but Asian elites remember well how America used global institutions to protect American interests rather than Asian homes. Americans, however, are barely cognizant of this lingering perception. Most Americans have similarly forgotten the contest between Beijing and Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, yet Chinese leaders recall vividly how America used its power to lobby against Beijing.
Muslims throughout Asia, meanwhile, recall American passivity when confronted with Palestinian suffering. Thanks to American technology, many Muslim living rooms have television sets; each day vivid scenes of Palestinian suffering are piped into their homes. They hear U.S. leaders profess their commitment to human rights, but see relative American inactivity in Palestine, Bosnia and Chechnya. These perceptions may be unfair, since America’s record can be defended in many ways. But this is not the point. The point is that many Asian Muslims believe that America does not care when Muslim lives are lost. Such perceptions abet a widespread loss of faith in America, which in due course is bound to delegitimize American power.
Another critical point that Americans have not understood is the effect of the rising level of Asian education, largely the result, ironically, of America opening its universities to talented Asians. Not surprisingly, enlightened U.S.-educated Asians see America’s double standards more clearly. Sadly, then, Asia’s most intelligent minds are the ones most alienated from the United States. In this regard, the Iraq war had a shattering impact. Most Asian governments supported the war or remained quiet, but educated Asians saw the Bush Administration as violating all the norms and principles that America had proclaimed since World War II.
If such trends are not reversed, America’s relations with Asia could eventually come to resemble its relations with Latin America. Latin America has borne the brunt of the rise of U.S. power since the end of the 19th century. Since it has often experienced the less enlightened side of that power, Latin Americans essentially view the United States as an overweening and self-absorbed bully. This may well become the dominant Asian perception of America as well. This is not an abstract point. Just observe how the populations of South Korea and Turkey, key Asian allies, have recently turned against America.
This deterioration of America’s image in Asia need not go on; it can indeed be reversed. The enormous goodwill that America has accumulated over decades in Asia has not yet been squandered, considering how many young Asians still dream of going to America. We have therefore come to a delicate tipping point in U.S.-Asia relations: The decisions that America makes in the next decade or so will determine the future of this all-important relationship.
The tragedy here is that few American policymakers seem to be aware of the implications of their decisions for the 3.6 billion Asians who make up 56 percent of the world’s population. The time has come for America to do a comprehensive examination of the impact of American power on the world, especially on Asia. The challenge is to retrieve and adapt those policies that worked well in the past, and to moderate or discard those that worked badly. And this examination must transcend geopolitics to embrace economic and cultural dimensions, as well.
America’s Generosity to Asia
Of America’s many great contributions to human history, one of the most enlightened was sparking the rise of Asia. When the United States emerged at the end of World War II with almost half the globe’s GNP, it could well have behaved like its Western great power predecessors: colonize the world. Instead, it encouraged the Europeans to decolonize. The legacy of centuries of European colonial rule has still not been fully eradicated in Asia. Hence, many Asians remain acutely aware of how differently America has behaved toward Asia.
And Asians know that this benign American attitude began long before World War II. The history books may suggest that Commodore Perry was only practicing traditional 19th-century gunboat diplomacy when he first pressed Japan to open itself up to trade in 1853. But the Japanese have fond memories of Perry’s arrival, for America did not send Perry to colonize or dominate Japan but to trade with it–and his coming triggered the great Meiji Restoration.
Nor does America have a painful legacy to overcome with the other two great Asian powers, India and China. Indians are grateful for the role America played in the decolonization of India. When Mahatma Gandhi was looking for levers of power to pull against the weight of British colonial authority, he used the New York Times to turn American public opinion against London. It worked. Despite decades of sitting on opposite sides of the geopolitical divide during the Cold War, Indian society never lost its admiration for American society and its affinity with it.
Similarly, after painful humiliations in the periods of European and Japanese ascendancy, the era of American ascendancy has been relatively positive for China, despite having been on the opposite side of the United States during both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The Sino-American relationship was helped by geopolitical convergence and the skills of Nixon and Kissinger, Mao and Zhou. But it was helped in a more fundamental way by Deng Xiaoping’s revolutionary decision to use American society as a model to expose the weakness of communist central planning. Deng’s “Four Modernizations” would not have worked had he not had the shining example of the American economic dream to dangle before the Chinese people.
Americans do not like to trouble themselves over history. But an understanding of Asian history will help America see what it has done right with respect to Asian societies. America has done a lot right, and the goodwill thus earned has been further reinforced by the warm welcome given by American universities to hundreds of thousands of Asian students over the past few decades. While educated Asians have become disillusioned by recent U.S. policies, Asian societies nonetheless recognize the enormously beneficial and transformative effects that exposure to U.S. universities has had on Asian achievements. Returning Asian graduates have provided the “yeast” for the remarkable simultaneous rise of several Asian societies, and not just because these graduates returned home with specific technical skills in engineering or medicine or architecture. They also brought with them the American Dream: the belief that any individual can succeed regardless of caste, clan or class. This quintessentially American belief enabled Asian societies to shake off the deadweight of centuries of feudal social fabric, releasing huge reservoirs of pent-up energy and dynamism. It is hard to see how modern Asia could have succeeded without this American contribution.
Even more vital, America used its power at the end of World War II to create a global order that gave all nations an equal chance to thrive. These 1945 rules–wired into the UN Charter and the IMF, the World Bank and GATT constitutions–allowed for the peaceful emergence of new powers as well as the re-emergence of the defeated Axis powers. America’s actions made clear its intentions: America did not want to see other societies fail; it wanted them to succeed.
Those post-1945 rules had another large impact: They made major war unlikely. There are many reasons why no two great powers have directly gone to war since 1945. Nuclear terror was one reason. But the truly critical reason is that no major power felt there were barriers to its progress. If the European powers of the 19th century would have tried to prevent the re-emergence of strong and prosperous Asian societies, in the 20th century America did the very opposite.
The greatest uncertainty that hangs over the 21st century is whether America will behave as it did in the 20th century, or as European powers did in the 19th. Certainly America is not about to colonize the world in the traditional European imperial fashion. Even its invasion of Iraq was done with the intention of liberating, not conquering, the Iraqi people. But it is unclear whether American power will be used solely to preserve U.S. interests, even at the expense of global concerns, or whether America will return to the spirit of 1945 and create a global order that allows both America and other powers to grow and thrive. On this critical question, America sends mixed signals.
How America and Asia Have Drifted Apart
Given the manifold American contributions to the rise of Asia, it is strange that we should be concerned over the future of U.S.-Asia relations. But this uncertainty is a result of the massive U-turn America took at the end of the Cold War. During that conflict, America perceived an interest in putting together a global bloc to rival that of the Soviet Union. There was an awareness in America that it was about to engage in a titanic struggle. In the writings of George Kennan and others, one could discern a clear understanding that America needed a coherent, long-term strategy. By contrast, when the Cold War ended, U.S. policymakers assumed that no comprehensive, coherent strategy was required. With the collapse of its rival, America only wished to come home to take care of itself. Policymakers left the conceptualizing to academics like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, whom they occasionally mentioned but seemed not to have studied carefully. They assumed that with the triumph of democracy over communism, the world’s natural, happy destiny was one of greater freedom, that a new, inevitable tide of history had emerged. Instead of designing a thoughtful strategy focusing on the purposes of American power in the post-Cold War world, U.S. leaders produced vacuous speeches and a thoroughly unsystematic, reactive cacophony of policies.
This rather thoughtless process of disengagement, and the subsequent misalignment of American and Asian interests, has been partly responsible for the slow but steady rise of anti-American sentiment among two of the largest segments of the Asian population: the Chinese and the Muslims. It has also affected the perception of the United States in more ambiguous ways in a third major segment of the Asian population–India. Let us take these three in turn.
China experienced faster economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s than it had in any comparable period in the past 200 years. The Chinese people got a vivid glimpse of a better life for themselves and their progeny. It was at this moment of Chinese triumph and hope that America discovered the great defects of the same Chinese government with which it had cooperated happily during the second half of the Cold War.
This American about-face led to a great divide in the way Americans and Chinese perceived China’s condition in the 1990s. Americans saw the Chinese Communist regime as a relic of history, one that would inevitably be washed away when the new tide of freedom and democracy reached Chinese shores. The Chinese saw their regime as the best they had had in centuries. Certainly they wanted to see improvements in governance, but few wanted the regime to collapse and disappear as the Soviet regime did. Most Americans view Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of that collapse, as a hero. The Chinese (and increasingly more Russians) view Gorbachev as one of the most naive leaders in history, a man who gave away a formidable empire without a shot and got nothing in return. No Chinese leader wanted to be accused of a similar folly.
Throughout the 1990s, official U.S.-China relations went through a series of ups and downs. Despite the efforts of President George H.W. Bush to keep the relationship on an even keel, the Tiananmen Square episode assaulted American sensibilities and constrained his ability to improve relations. When President Clinton took office in January 1993, after having described the leaders of China as the “butchers of Beijing”, one could easily have predicted a far bumpier road. But I was present in Blake Island in November 1993 at the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting and saw with my own eyes how Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin made an enormous effort to reach out to each other. By the end of the day, their mutual wariness was replaced by a significant degree of personal bonhomie.
Even though U.S.-China state relations remained on a positive trajectory in the 1990s, the societal divide seemed to grow wider. This was starkly demonstrated by the acutely different perceptions that arose over one crucial event. On May 7, 1999, American bombs struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese. Western media cast this as just one unfortunate incident in the painful war in the Balkans. It appeared in the news for a week or two, then was largely forgotten. Those American foreign policy devotees who recall the attack are convinced that it was an accident. Asked whether it was deliberate, 99 percent would say that such a claim was preposterous. And yet virtually all the Chinese to whom I have spoken are convinced that the American bombing of the Chinese embassy was deliberate, and designed to convey a message: Beware of American power. Few Chinese have forgotten this event. Both sides will dispute the facts of this story for a long time, but the facts have become irrelevant. That these two societies can reach polar opposite conclusions about this event illustrates well the divide between Americans and Chinese.
One would expect the relationship between the world’s greatest power and the world’s greatest emerging power to be marked by at least some degree of geopolitical rivalry, suspicion and discord. Indeed, soon after President George W. Bush assumed office in January 2001, U.S.-China relations appeared headed for trouble. Some Bush Administration principals expressed concerns about the rise of China, and tensions ran high across the Pacific following the emergency landing of a U.S. spy plane on Hainan Island in April 2001. But then another historical accident intervened: 9/11. America shifted its strategic sights first to Osama bin Laden and later to Saddam Hussein. Especially following the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, America had little time or energy to focus on China. A friend of mine in Beijing told me he noticed a palpable sense of relief in China when 9/11 happened; the Chinese knew this would buy them time. This window of respite is now closing, however. In the second Bush term it is clear that America will firmly set its strategic sights on the rise of China. What is less clear is exactly what America will see, and what it will do.
To say that America sends mixed signals on China would be a huge understatement. On the one hand, the level of economic interdependence between China and America has never been higher. Trade between the two has grown from $7.7 billion in 1985 to $57.3 billion in 1995, and to a remarkable $231.4 billion in 2004. Despite disputes over textiles, the trade balance and the value of the yuan, America is reacting calmly to the economic rise of China, as it did with the resurgence of Japan and Germany after World War II.
On the political and security fronts, however, American signals are harder to read. On the surface, America seems keen to preserve good relations. It does not call for regime change in Beijing as it does with Pyongyang and Tehran. Yet U.S. policymakers see no contradiction between economic engagement and calls for greater freedom and democracy. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 4, 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said:
Growth in political freedom has not yet followed [China’s economic growth]. With a system that encouraged enterprise and free expression, China would appear more a welcome partner and provide even greater economic opportunities for the Chinese people. . . . Ultimately, China likely will need to embrace some form of a more open and representative government if it is to fully achieve the political and economic benefits to which its people aspire.
U.S. policymakers believe that when they call for democracy in China they are doing something akin to preaching the virtues of motherhood. For Chinese policymakers, however, calling for democracy in China is akin to calling for a leader who would destroy China’s prospects as effectively as Gorbachev dismantled the Soviet empire.
To understand the impact of America’s mixed signals on China, Americans should try to imagine a discussion within the Chinese Politburo. Any policymaker who argued today that, on balance, American policies toward China have been benign (and a strong, objective case can be made for this) would get short shrift. His colleagues would likely recall how America has tried, directly or indirectly, to trip up and embarrass China. Few Americans will recall, for example, then-Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s trip to the United States in April 1999. Zhu bent over backwards to accommodate several American demands in order to secure early U.S. agreement to China’s entry into the WTO. Many of the concessions Zhu offered were painful, both for his government and his society. Despite those concessions, Zhu returned home empty-handed and was sent into temporary internal exile for having “humiliated” China. Few high-level U.S. officials bear this visit in mind, but it left an indelible mark on leading Chinese minds. As a result of several such encounters, suspicion of America has never been higher in China. America’s positions on the revaluation of the yuan and CNOOC’s short-lived effort to acquire Unocal have only aggravated China further. For Americans, these are discrete events. For the Chinese, they form a consistent pattern of unfriendly American behavior.
An equally sharp difference in mindsets has developed between Americans and Asian Muslims, whose perceptions have been influenced by events throughout the Islamic world. As in the case of China, this divergence was not inevitable. Throughout the Cold War, there were natural reservoirs of Asian Muslim goodwill toward America. America had not colonized any Islamic society as had European countries. In the Islamic world, too, America encouraged decolonization. In 1956, when the United Kingdom and France (working with Israel) tried to re-assert their influence in the Middle East in the famous Suez crisis, America opposed them and doomed the effort to defeat. This was a powerful signal of solidarity with Muslims.
Throughout the Cold War, American interests were broadly aligned with those of most parts of the Islamic world. Virtually all the large and influential Islamic states were allies or friends of America, including Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and, before 1979, Iran. Despite the Iranian Revolution, the strategic alignment of American interests with the Islamic world reached its peak in December 1979 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. America correctly concluded that the Islamic world was naturally immune to the ideological appeals of Marxism, and so encouraged Islamic solidarity in the battle to liberate Afghanistan. The CIA transported and armed Islamic jihadists from all over the world to go fight in Afghanistan, and here is where the American assumption of consonant interests with the Islamic world proved mistaken.
The Saudi Osama bin Laden was in this CIA-aided group. He appreciated American support, but he noticed that no Americans or Europeans fought on the battlefields. In his eyes, they were afraid to die. By contrast, the Islamic warriors were eager to die in battle. Hence, when the Cold War ended, these jihadists believed that they had earned the fruits of victory, not the West–despite the fact that the Afghan mujaheddin deserved most of the credit–and that they were capable of defeating the West just as they had defeated the Soviet Union. We are all reasonably familiar with what happened next.
Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War led to the end of the strategic alignment between American interests and those of the Islamic world. Pakistan was a key ally in the Cold War, facilitating the Sino-American rapprochement and leading Islamic resistance to Soviet influence in the Third World. Nonetheless, Pakistan was abruptly dropped from the ranks of U.S. allies after the Cold War, ostensibly on the grounds of its undemocratic politics and poor human rights record. The Clinton Administration withheld the delivery of F-16 fighter aircraft promised to Pakistan during the Cold War, and withheld the return of hundreds of millions of dollars of Pakistani payments for nearly six years. I have yet to meet a senior Pakistani policymaker who does not have a profound memory of Pakistan being seduced, used and then abandoned by America. So despite the realignment of strategic interests between America and Pakistan after 9/11, Pakistanis remain deeply wary of Americans. The recent American discovery of India as a “natural ally” has only aggravated this wariness.
In the meantime, significant changes–mostly unnoticed by U.S. leaders–were taking place in the Asian Islamic world during the 1980s and 1990s. For more than a thousand years, as Islam spread to all corners of Asia, South and Southeast Asian Islam was of an especially gentle kind. But with the shrinking of the world, thanks to Western communications technology, new cultural pipes began to link the different pools of Islamic history and experience. Several Muslim scholars in Southeast Asia have spoken of the “Arabization” of Southeast Asian Islam, a trend that has affected all features of daily life among Southeast Asian Muslims.
In the 1960s I visited the campus of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. Many young Muslims I encountered there loved Western pop culture and sang Elvis Presley and Beatles songs with great passion. There was no divide between Islam and the West for Malay Muslims. Thirty years later, this has completely changed. Most young Malay Muslim girls now wear conservative Islamic dress, with only their face, hands and feet showing. One of the most unnerving indicators of the depth of anger toward America that now prevails was the total lack of remorse on the face of the Bali bomber, Amrozi, when he was sentenced for killing 202 people at a night club, including 88 Australians, on October 12, 2002. He told his captors that he was happy to die killing Americans. Such behavior is profoundly un-Javanese, indicating how deeply radical Islam has settled into the hitherto unwelcoming cultural soil of Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asian Muslims were also affected by the growing alienation between America and the Islamic world at large in the 1990s. Throughout the Cold War, America remained sensitive to Palestinian interests, partly to avoid losing the battle for Islamic hearts and minds to the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War removed this constraint, but U.S. policy did not change. Both before and after the September 1993 Oslo Accords, the Clinton Administration spared no effort to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace. No one visited the White House more often than Yasir Arafat, and the United States went on record as supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. And yet, remarkably, during this entire period the conviction grew throughout the Muslim world that America saw no value in defending Islamic lives, especially Palestinian ones.
In 1994, I visited the Singapore home of my then seven-year-old son’s teacher, a young Malay Muslim woman who spoke fluent English and, though she dressed conservatively, felt totally comfortable in a Western environment. Her husband was a middle manager in a shipping firm. They had a lovely five-room apartment and, from all appearances, were a typical successful middle-class family. Such a home should have been a natural reservoir of pro-American sentiment. Alas, it was not. I spent an hour talking to the teacher’s husband, and there were only two issues that concerned him: Palestine and Bosnia. Through CNN and the BBC, he had witnessed scenes of Palestinians and Bosnians being killed. He described to me in detail the many historical injustices inflicted upon these peoples, reflecting how their sufferings–which were virtually absent from the Malay Muslim consciousness a few decades ago–have become deeply embedded in the Southeast Asian Muslim mind.
The sentiments this gentleman expressed to me signified a global shift in Muslim attitudes toward America. Again and again, my Muslim intellectual friends would tell me that Muslim resentment was driven by a sense of injustice: Why did America remain silent when Muslim lives were lost? How could it be so indifferent to Muslim casualties?
This is why it was not surprising that Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister, received a standing ovation from the leaders of virtually all Islamic countries at the October 2003 Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Putrajaya. Most of the leaders who stood up to applaud Mahathir were “friends” of America. They could legitimately claim that they were applauding his frank self-criticism of Islamic societies. Yet his speech also contained sharp words on the Middle East issue that shocked many Americans.
America should be under no illusion that it is winning the battle for hearts and minds among Asian Muslims. The contrary is true. As Fareed Zakaria noted in the September/October 2004 issue of Foreign Policy, “In 2000, 75 percent of Indonesians identified themselves as pro-American. Today, more than 80 percent are hostile to Uncle Sam.” In short, Asian Muslim attitudes toward America are coming to resemble those of the core Middle East. A Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted last June illustrated that even Middle Eastern countries that have been traditional allies of America now hold negative views. In Jordan 80 percent of the population has a negative impression of the United States; in Turkey and in Pakistan 67 and 60 percent of the people now do, as well.
The story of U.S.-India relations has had its own trajectory. Despite an affinity for Americans and American society, Indians are naturally suspicious of American geopolitical calculations, having been caught on the wrong side in the Cold War. They remember that Pakistan was once used as a card against India. They remember and resent how America treated China as a major power deserving respect during the Cold War, while treating India as a poor Third World basket case.
Under normal geopolitical conditions, India should have been a beneficiary of the drifting apart of America and China after the Cold War. Instead, the U.S.-India relationship, too, has had its ups (with Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh bringing the relationship to new heights) and its downs–the latter culminating in the imposition of U.S. sanctions on India after its May 1998 nuclear tests. Since 9/11, U.S.-India relations have improved markedly, and not just because of common interests in opposing terrorism. After an Indo-Pakistani war scare in 2002, which U.S. diplomacy quietly helped to defuse, the State Department devoted extensive high-level attention to forging a better relationship with India. This attention has borne fruit.
The current honeymoon, reflected in the red carpet welcome given to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July and the recent civil nuclear agreement, may or may not settle into a happy marriage. It will certainly not do so if America is seen as trying to use India as a card against China. Sophisticated Indians realize that it would be unwise for India to allow itself to be used as an instrument of American foreign policy, and they would be flatly insulted by any such attempt. Indeed, as Prime Minister Singh said in June:
There is a significant scope to expand our relations with both China and [the] U.S. without getting into this futile controversy. . . . We are not part of any alliance system working against China’s interests. There is enough space available for both our countries to move ahead. India’s ties with the U.S. stand on their own merit and logic. They are not directed against any other country.
A New Strategy for Asia
The time has come for America to formulate a coherent and comprehensive strategy to deal with the rise of Asia. A new cold war–or worse–with either China or the Asian Islamic world is not inevitable. Asia is not lost, nor need it be lost. A strong partnership can be forged across the Pacific Ocean, but the time to act is now, and it is not difficult to spell out the main ingredients of a new U.S. approach toward Asia.
China provides the first and main challenge. Chinese leaders need a clear answer to one question: Will America tolerate the peaceful rise of China if the Chinese agree to abide by the post-1945 rules? This is, indeed, the biggest geopolitical question of the 21st century, and it is clear that a big debate is (finally) beginning in Washington about how to handle China’s rise. The temptation to use the American power advantage to contain China is understandable–and many are tempted. But as Henry Kissinger wrote in the June 13 Washington Post, Cold War-type containment will not work:
The American interest in cooperative relations with China is for the pursuit of a stable international system. Preemption is not a feasible policy toward a country of China’s magnitude. It cannot be in our interest to have new generations in China grow up with a perception of a permanently and inherently hostile United States. It cannot be in China’s interest to be perceived in America as being exclusively focused on its own narrow domestic or Asian interests.
An equally significant debate is raging in Beijing, and some Chinese policymakers believe that an American attempt at containment is inevitable. U.S. policymakers must therefore carefully measure their actions to guard against the rise of this impression. China will be watching with particular sensitivity whether America encourages or discourages discord between China and Japan. When last February the Japanese government signed on to the “two-plus-two” statement with America, declaring a “security interest” in Taiwan–a territory whose initial separation from China was caused by Japan–Japan crossed a red line in China’s estimation, and appeared to do so at America’s behest. It was not a propitious moment.
Winning over Islamic hearts and minds in Asia is America’s second major challenge. Good state relations are not enough as long as America’s standing in the eyes of Asian Muslims remains so low. Mere public diplomacy is not the answer either. Asian Muslims need to see America making another big push to bring peace to the Israelis and Palestinians. America also needs to make a firm commitment to provide both moral support and material resources to the development and modernization of Asian Islamic countries. Asian Muslims do not need aid; they need trade and engagement, so a free-trade agreement with a large Islamic country like Indonesia would send a powerful signal. Similarly, Congress should continue on its path to completely lift the 1999 Clinton Administration ban on military-to-military contacts with Indonesia. The Indonesian military still has the potential to be a secular, modernizing force in Indonesia. What better way to educate the Indonesian military on the virtues of civilian democratic rule than to expose them to American civil-military education?
Post-9/11 American visa policies also need to change. These policies have been disastrous in sharply curtailing access to the civilizing effects of American universities for young Asian Muslim intellectuals. These ad hoc policies were implemented with no thought to the overall signals America was sending to the Islamic world. The time has come to send a coherent–and different–set of signals.
India provides the third major challenge. India will take advantage of American overtures but will also work assiduously to demonstrate its independence. This is particularly the case with regard to China. America would be wise not to seek an Indo-Chinese split as it engages India more closely. Instead, America will gain more if it pursues a long-term policy of engagement based on mutual respect. American influence will rise as American power is tempered.
Finally, as Asians develop confidence in themselves and their societies, it is inevitable that new patterns of cooperation will emerge that transcend old boundaries. Witness the spectacular recent change in sentiment between India and Pakistan. The remarkable growth of intra-Asian trade, which is rising faster than transatlantic or transpacific trade, is another example. The East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005 will give one indication of the new political map of Asia. For the first time, ASEAN leaders will come together with the leaders of China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. More than half of the world’s population will be represented.
Many Americans will be tempted to believe that Asian regionalism will come at the expense of U.S. influence in the region. This zero-sum mentality will have to change. If new patterns of cooperation emerge in Asia, and if Asian societies succeed, the world will become a richer place both materially and culturally. America, too, will benefit. Most Asian societies will want to maintain close links with America, which is still the main source for high-quality education and remarkable creativity in many spheres. Support for the strong American military presence in East Asia also shows no signs of weakening.
Given a choice, most Asians would still prefer an Asia-Pacific Century rather than an Asian one. Their position is clear. What is still unclear is America’s position. Some may think that the 21st century can be like most of the 20th: an American Century. But many Asian societies lay prostrate through the 20th century, and now they are finally standing up. Will America work together with Asian peoples as they enter their most productive phase in centuries? Or will America try to retain its unilateral advantages in the world order at Asia’s expense? Most Asians still do not know. The time has come for America to declare its intent to engage fully the Asia of the 21st century, with respect and expectations of mutual benefit in a common future. The time to save a century is now.