Eclipsed by China's rise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2006, 12:00am

The world is changing. The structure of global power is shifting, and Asia is finally emerging as a pillar of the international system. We have heard this talk before - over a decade ago, the 'Asian century' was the storyline - but it is finally happening. The rise of China is part of this story, but it is only a part. More significantly, the obsession with China obscures equally important changes occurring throughout the region.

China is a big deal: its stunning growth - averaging some 9 per cent since the early 1990s - is the most visible sign of, and is in many ways the moving force behind, Asia's emergence. But there is far more happening in Asia than Chinese growth. For a better perspective, take some of the countries in the region one by one.

In South Korea, a political transformation is under way as President Roh Moo-hyun tries to reshape domestic politics. By necessity, this attempt to recalibrate the balance of power in South Korea has profound implications for foreign relations, as politicians in Seoul seek new allies and sources of legitimacy.

In Japan, the 'lost decade' of the 1990s has shaken the country's modern identity. As a result, the nation is grappling with new security and economic policies, and the social changes that will follow from reform.

In Southeast Asia, governments struggle with insurgencies, Islamic fundamentalism and modernisation. Each of these issues concerns regional governments in varying degrees, but all need to be considered in their own national context.

Often overlooked, India is also rising and emerging as a new factor in strategic calculations, and extending its reach beyond the subcontinent.

Finally, in Taiwan, 'identity' politics is equally powerful and is redefining its relations with mainland China and the world.

Alternatively, look at forces at work throughout the region. A demographic transition is occurring, most markedly in northeastern Asia but elsewhere, too. This new generation has different memories and perceptions, which will reshape relations among states. And while a new generation is taking power throughout East Asia, their societies are greying, and an ageing population will have profoundly different priorities.

Nationalism is on the rise as this younger generation tries to find their countries' place in the world. This has contributed to rising tensions in northeastern Asia.

The region's emergence also contributes to its redefinition: as Asia becomes more of a force to be reckoned with, other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, are clamouring to become part of it.

These issues are not being completely ignored. There is a tendency to see them through a Chinese lens, however. Even the North Korean nuclear crisis is seen through a Chinese prism: the debate over North Korea tends to turn on how much leverage Beijing has in dealing with Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, many Asian security specialists complain that US engagement in Asia, beyond its fluctuating relationship with China, is too narrowly defined by the 'war on terror' and needs to be more multi-dimensional. As a first step to remedy these problems, the United States should issue an East Asian strategic report, which would provide an official assessment of regional developments.

Finally, and most difficult, the US has to adjust its mindset and appreciate that Asia is finally becoming a force in international affairs and needs to be dealt with on its own terms. The failure to appreciate the forces at work in the region means that the US will miss a chance to harness Asia's dynamism and energy.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank