[Viewpoint] Taking the initiative in Asia

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[Viewpoint] Taking the initiative in Asia

President Barack Obama emphasized deeper and broader U.S. engagement with Asia in his first major address on Asian policy during his recent Asian tour. He promised strengthened and sustained commitment in a region of rising powers regardless of pressing security issues in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had been more quick and up-front in defining Japan’s new stake in Asia. He spelled out an Asia-focused foreign policy based on his hallmark brotherhood philosophy, ending Japan’s more than a century-old quest for a place in the rich Western club, dating back to the Meiji era, to instead grow closer with its neighbors.

The stronger emphasis on Asia from the U.S. and Japan stems from the change in balance of global power due to China’s rapid rise since the turn of the century. The U.S. enjoyed status as the sole superpower on the post-Cold War world stage for the last two decades. But its leadership has been challenged by the ascent of the European Union, military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and rising Asian powers.

Kishore Mahbubani, author of the book “The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Power to the East,” said the phrase “The End of History = The Triumph of West” from an essay by Francis Fukuyama, should translate into the end of Western domination of world history and return of Asia in a 21st century context. He suggested that the collapse of the Cold War has not ended history but opened a new one with Asia on center stage.

Korea took the opportune step in rewriting its foreign agenda to accommodate the ascent of Asia. President Lee Myung-bak spoke on the New Asian Initiative during the annual conference with Korean emissaries in Jakarta in March and again during the June summit meeting with Southeast Asian nations in Jeju.

The Asia-centered policy underscores the country’s hopes to capitalize on the Asian renaissance through a strengthened role and leadership all over the world.

The plan is emphatic and ambitious in tone, but lacking specifics on how it will be implemented.

In the 1980s, President Chun Doo Hwan floated the idea of joining the South-South Cooperation, an alliance among developing countries in the southern hemisphere, while on an African tour. He envisioned closer ties with African countries and access to their rich resources in return for economic aid.

Yet his vision lasted no longer than his trip and was never formulated into action.

Impromptu propaganda showcases are not foreign in Korean diplomatic records. The Chun Doo Hwan administration had not worked out the means to make such a venture possible.

Korean officials flash out the Korean experience of rapid industrialization and modernization when they speak of closer ties with less developed countries. No doubt, Korea is a benchmark among developing latecomers with its rags-to-riches success story.

But these countries demand financial assistance if they are to emulate and apply the Korean experience to their economies.

Yet Korea has been shy when it comes to money. Korea’s financial commitment to poor countries, or Official Development Assistance, stops at $1 billion, paltry against Japan’s $9.6 billion. Even if Korea funnels 60 percent of its fund to the Asian community, its offer of $600 million is no match for $2.7 billion from Japan, or 28 percent set aside for the same region.

The government plans to raise its ODA commitment to $3 billion by 2015, and 60 percent would be $1.8 billion.

From the donor’s perspective, the sum is huge, but would it be enough to fund the government’s ambitious expedition to engage countries from the Southeast to the South Pacific Rim? Can it expect the National Assembly to be supportive of such overseas generosity? The Foreign Ministry is short on manpower already, but can we afford to increase the diplomatic resources to back the new Asia-driven policy?

Few can argue Asia is at the forefront of the 21st century. All countries need to weight their foreign policy with Asia in mind; it’s inevitable. But instead of grandiose rhetoric, we must present a realistic and affordable action plan. The government must first budget for the plan, then seek support from the legislators and understanding from the public.

It should also examine whether the Asia Initiative vision is tenable against the idea of an Asia-Pacific coalition led by the U.S. and China and Japan’s concept of an East Asian community.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie
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