[Viewpoint] New tectonic shift favors Asia

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[Viewpoint] New tectonic shift favors Asia

In the 20th century, there were two major historical turning points. The period between the great World Wars was the first turning point. The second was the decade around 1990 when the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Bloc crumbled and the Cold War ended. After the first turning point, the center of world order shifted from Europe to the United States. The post-world war order that divided the world into two camps - the free capitalist and communist bloc countries - was reorganized during the second turning point. The world became unipolar, centering on the only one superpower in the world, the United States. Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, the world is on the threshold of another major historical shift.

The 9/11 terror attacks were a signal. The unimaginable terror of Al Qaeda could have been interpreted as a warning to the arrogance of the “American Empire,” but U.S. leadership at the time lacked self-reflection. It burst out in rage toward Afghanistan and Iraq, and ultimately ended up slipping into a quagmire. When Lehman Brothers, the symbol of U.S. financial supremacy, crashed like a house of cards, the international system, with Washington at the center, began crumbling with it.

The Group of 20, or G-20, which systematically brings together new economic powers such as China, Brazil, India and Korea, represents the new world order at a turning point of history.

The thing that obviously stands out in this shift is the rise of Asia. A total of five Asian countries, including Korea, China, Japan, India and Indonesia, are included in the G-20. Asean Plus Three, encompassing the Asean member nations with Korea, China and Japan, accounts for 35 percent of the world’s population, and 20 percent of world GDP and trade. It is no exaggeration, but a reality to say that the center of world order is moving from Europe to Asia via the United States.

A major change in the usual way of thinking is necessary in order to turn this grand shift into an opportunity. To borrow an English expression, we need “to think out of the box.” The fate of a country will change completely depending on how creative it is and whether it has vision and insight. When the West ruled the East at the end of the 19th century, Japan became the first Asian country that succeeded in building up a wealthy militaristic country by executing its Meiji Revitalizing Reform.

What is the choice for Korea in the this first great historical turning point of the 21st century? It is to weave a network. We need to weave a network of many layers in many different fields, including economy, military, security, culture and science.

From an economic perspective, it is a wise decision for the government to reject protectionism and actively aim to expand free trade agreements with other countries. When the free trade agreements with the United States and the EU are completed, in addition to the free trade agreements we already have with Chile, Asean, Singapore and the European Free Trade Association, Korea will have a worldwide network of trade and investments.

And it is a good thing that the Lee Myung-bak administration has stepped forward to strengthen the relationship with Asean countries under the banner of its “New Asia Initiative.” The Korea-Asean special summit meeting held in Jeju Island last week was very significant in this sense. In a situation where China and Japan are competing over hegemony in East Asia, it is not only natural but also inevitable for Korea to tighten its relationship with Asean.

As was revealed in the composition of the $120 billion Chiang Mai Initiative fund, Korea cannot exercise influence without joining hands with Asean in the decision-making structure of Asean Plus Three. The contribution of China and Japan together is 32 percent and that of Asean is 20 percent, while Korea’s share is only 16 percent. Asean casts a vote between China and Japan independently, but Korea must use its position wisely. Korea can use the strategy of joining hands with Asean to protect its interests between Japan and China. This is the reason why cooperation with Asean is absolutely necessary for Korea. Korea cannot beat China or Japan in a materialistic competition toward Asean. It has to approach Asean with an image of “a reliable leading country with a solid economy and an attractive culture.”

In order to complete the “Plan for a New Asia,” Korea has to strengthen relations with India after Asean. Southwest Asia, represented by India, has to be included in any plan for a new Asia which the government is working on in earnest. Such a plan must encompass Central and Southeast Asia, and could even cross the Indian Ocean to extend into the South Pacific. India, with a population of 1.1 billion, is already a member of the East Asian Summit together with Australia and New Zealand. Strengthening cooperation with India is a very important preparatory step for building a new Asian order. The country will compete with China over hegemony in Asia in the middle of the 21st century. India is a country where half of the population is under the age of 25 and many speak English. It is not an aging population, which is a problem China will face. This is why India has more growth potential than China.

The Korea-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which won’t be signed until negotiations are complete, should be concluded as soon as possible. The CEPA has a different name, but it is the same as a free trade agreement. President Lee has to visit India in the second half of this year, meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been successfully re-elected, and personally sign the CEPA.

The plan to establish a Korean industrial complex in India should be finalized, too. For the vision of unification of the Korean Peninsula, securing the support of a country like India, a superpower of the future, is just as important as maintaining an alliance with the United States. It will be a big help if a country like India speaks out for Korea on the international stage when China and Japan are passive. During a historical turning point, it is necessary to have an unprecedented way of thinking. We are at a junction where we urgently need a “grand architecture” for drawing the future vision for the Korean Peninsula through global networking.


The Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization is a financial crisis prevention system with a fund of $120 billion, which was agreed upon at a financial ministers’ meeting of Asean Plus Three. It started as a currency swap between countries in a financial or foreign exchange crisis but evolved into a group support system with multiple countries toward the end of last year. This could develop into an Asian Monetary Fund with the establishment of an inspection facility that constantly checks the macroeconomic situation of each country.

*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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