Asia and the West in the Age of Obama

By Dan Twining

WASHINGTON --  As U.S. President Barack Obama visits Asia, many European and American observers have embraced the narrative that an emerging, China-centric New Asian Order will reshape world politics, relegating the West to inexorable decline and marginalization. Like any fallacy, this contention contains just enough truth to be plausible. But it is more reflective of a Western inferiority complex than of ground reality along the Pacific Rim.

There is no question that the once Western-dominated world is transforming as globalization propels the rise of new powers in Asia and Latin America. Yet these nations want to integrate into, not overthrow, a rules- and market-based international order profoundly shaped by Western principles and power. Countries like India and Brazil, and next-generation BRICS like Indonesia and Mexico, are democracies that define their national interests with reference to economic liberty, a belief in the democratic peace, and adherence to the principles of human dignity that underlie all open societies.

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These are universal values that had their origins in the European Enlightenment. Their embrace by most emerging powers should be welcomed by all who believe a world featuring greater levels of individual liberty and opportunity is a world safer for all.

The revisionism of these rising democracies seeks greater welfare for their people, a bigger stake in a liberal international order, and the prestige that accompanies equal membership with Western nations in the great power club. This is a revisionism of a different sort than that which subjugates neighbors, exports violent ideologies, and mobilizes national populations for aggressive ends.

So the West should welcome rising democracies into the institutions and practices of global governance. Just as European recovery boosted American prosperity and security after World War II, so economic growth and greater international stewardship by countries like Japan, South Korea, India, and Indonesia would strengthen an international system that continues to provide greater levels of human security and opportunity to more people than any other.

This leads us to the question of China – an authoritarian state undertaking an eye-opening military buildup on the back of an aggressive form of state capitalism. Non-transparent Chinese development assistance props up undemocratic regimes in Burma and Sudan. Chinese arms sales embolden autocratic leaders in Iran and North Korea. Leaders in Russia and elsewhere praise China’s developmental model as a cure for their own socioeconomic ills, with troubling implications for prospects for political liberalization.

Does this make China an ideological competitor to the West? Will a new international “Beijing consensus” in favor of authoritarian modernity replace the “Washington consensus” that favors market democracy? Probably not. Rather than a confident superpower, China is in many ways a wary and defensive one – largely because its leaders’ greatest source of insecurity is its own people.

China’s mandarins were flummoxed by the “Color Revolutions” earlier this decade; they have been outspokenly opposed to Western efforts to promote good governance and deepen cooperation among Asian democracies. It’s almost as if the Chinese Politburo has adopted a Marxist-Leninist determinism about the future of human social organization – but has identified participatory democracy rather than a communal “worker’s paradise” as its most likely form.

More Asians live under democratic rule than in any other region of the world. In this respect, China is an outlier among the great and rising powers – not the pacesetter. And forget about China’s ability to hold the West hostage by virtue of serving as America’s creditor – 70% of China’s GDP is constituted by trade, and it is dependent on the very Western consumers it subsidizes to maintain the rapid economic growth that forestalls popular unrest in China. China and the West are locked in a mutual economic embrace; punitive economic measures by either side would result in mutually assured impoverishment.

This is no guarantee that China and America are not destined for conflict, the odds of which grow with China’s expanding military power and regional ambitions. But given China’s great vulnerabilities – lack of popular consent for Communist Party rule, a non-convertible currency and opaque financial system, a disastrous demographic outlook, and encirclement by wary neighbors who fear and seek to balance its power – leaders in the West should be confident in their dealings with China.

During his Asia trip, President Obama should therefore be outspoken about human rights and democracy. He should be clear that America will not cede its influence in Asian and international affairs and will stand up for friends who share its interests and values. He should recommit the United States to leadership on free trade — Asian nations’ highest priority and an enduring source of American influence. And he should signal that America welcomes China’s rise, to the extent that it benefits China’s people and allows China to assume the international responsibilities that befit an aspiring world power.

What the President should not do is compromise the principles that have made the West strong, rich, and free – principles of economic and political freedom that most Asians, including Chinese societies in Taiwan and Hong Kong, have now embraced as their own.

Dan Twining is a senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund.

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