[OUTLOOK]Involve America in Asian plans

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[OUTLOOK]Involve America in Asian plans

The first East Asia Summit, which took place in Kuala Lumpur in mid-December, attracted relatively little attention in the United States, perhaps because we were not invited. Nonetheless, it raises important questions for American policy makers. Among them: What are the long-term goals of this embryonic Asian community? Where does the United States fit into it, if at all? How should America respond?
At this juncture, an Asian community is aspirational, its future contours scarcely visible.
This was acknowledged by the Summit’s host, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who observed that an “East Asia community would be a reality in the future as cooperation becomes stronger.” Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi added his hope that the East Asia Summit will “evolve into an opportunity for tackling concrete issues, not for just talk.”
That the gathering broke up without tangible accomplishment other than agreement to meet again should surprise no one. A regional community can be little more than a shared hope at this stage, for Asia is a vast and heterogeneous area. Its future security architecture has not yet taken clear shape, and America, the strongest military power in the region, still makes a decisive contribution to the regional equilibrium. Intra-regional trade is huge and growing fast, but the rules governing commercial and monetary transactions are embedded either in global agreements, or in sub-regional or bilateral arrangements that criss-cross the Asian market. The most powerful Asian countries ― China and Japan ― are deeply at odds over both historical and contemporary issues. India’s role in East Asia is still ill-defined. Taiwan is bereft of official relationships with Asians, though its economy is tightly integrated into regional and global markets. North Korea remains politically aloof, fearful of ideological contamination. Myanmar is widely treated as a pariah. Some Asean leaders remain anxious that their regional association may be submerged within wider Asian institutions. South Korean hopes appear fixed on carving out a pivotal political and economic role in a narrower Northeast Asian sub-region. Australian and New Zealand bids for participation in the Asian Summit provoked strong resistance ― suggesting that for some Asians the concept of community identity is more a matter of race or culture than geography.
What seems clear is that realizing the vision of an Asian community will not be swift or easy.
The same, of course, could have been said of the concept of European community in the 1950’s when it was merely a dream shared by Monnet, Adenauer, Schumann, and de Gasperi.
What shared dream inspires hopes for an emerging Asian community? From this vantage point, the answer is far from clear, and that may be the reason why Washington has adopted a rather passive stance ― watching and waiting.
For Americans, talk of an Asian community conjures up alternative motives and models:
One is the European community ― a common market in search of a shared political identity, a continental collective security arrangement, and a single foreign policy. The EU has become a major force in the world economy, yet its nations preserve their unique political cultures. It took shape with official American encouragement within a larger trans-Atlantic community, though at times it has been viewed by Washington as a possible rival rather than an always reliable partner.
A second model would be that of a counter-coalition to check or balance the influence of the predominant global power ― the United States ― in Asia. Sino-Russian collaboration within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has occasionally appeared to reflect some geopolitical interests shared by Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia.
A third alternative model would foresee efforts by China’s neighbors to “domesticate” Beijing by embedding it within a larger Asian community. Needless to add, the Chinese might regard an Asian community as a vehicle for expressing its leadership and acquiring political muscle for its dealings with countries inside and outside the area. Others ― e.g. Japan and India ― might harbor comparable ambitions.
A fourth model might be more modest, i.e. the creation of an Asian caucus to explore ways of promoting shared Asian interests in wider multilateral institutions, while discovering practical ways of coping with transnational problems affecting Asia that can be dealt with more effectively in concert, e.g. financial crises, energy shortages, environmental pollution or avian flu.
Holding Asian summit meetings does not require a choice between these alternative models of cooperation. Indeed discussions among Asian leaders should logically be directed at understanding the consequences of such a choice.
As an American, I can understand why Asians would want to have a forum in which they can discuss matters of mutual interest without our presence. But I am also struck by the huge stake we have in the nature of any emerging Asian community. Several of the models noted above would be inimical to our interests. We are, after all, a Pacific power. We retain a crucial role in providing security, averting nuclear proliferation, promoting freer trade, and coping with transnational problems that affect Asia. We invest heavily in the provision of ‘public goods” in the region. Not least, we have a significant role to play in tempering nascent Sino-Japanese rivalry, which if left unattended could pose insuperable obstacles to the establishment of a wider Asian community.
We cannot be expected to shoulder major responsibilities in a community from which key members seek to exclude us.
So though U.S. leaders do not necessarily have to be in attendance at every Asian Summit, we do need to be involved in the discussion about what form a future Asian community might take, and what role we would be expected to play in it. I believe Asians share an interest in having us a part of that dialogue, however it is to be conducted.

*The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.


by Michael H. Armacost
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