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Opinion

A whole new world for US and Asia: Can America adapt to the power shift?

President Obama's trip to Asia shows just how much the global power balance has shifted. China and India now hold the key to Western economic recovery. In this climate, the US must learn a new form of international leadership.

By Takashi Oka / November 17, 2010



Washington

President Obama’s swing through Asia these last two weeks demonstrated how the architecture of the world has changed. The United States is still the pre-eminent military power, but politically and economically it is China and India, not Washington or the Europeans, who hold the keys to the economic recovery and well-being of what was so long known as the Western world.

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The lesson for Americans in the Obama tour of Asia is that they cannot afford to wall themselves off from Asia or from the rest of the international community if they are to regain their dynamism – the willingness to roll up their sleeves and get to work – that once made this country great, and that many Americans still possess. They must adjust to their new role in this new global structure.

A different history

History’s progression now shows us a very different international landscape. Look at a map of Asia at the beginning of the 20th century, and you will see that – except for JapanThailand (then called Siam), Persia, and China were the only independent countries across the whole continent. China, though nominally independent, had had to surrender its entire customs administration, as well as bits and pieces of its territory, including Hong Kong, Port Arthur (Dalian) and Tsingtao (Qingdao), to Britain, Germany, and other European powers. And huge India (which then included Burma, or Myanmar) was ruled by a British Viceroy in the name of the King-Emperor, Edward VII.

But today China and India loom over the rest of the world as very much their own masters – in fact, as manufacturers of essential goods, from cars to computer chips, who might conceivably rescue their Western partners from joblessness and stagnant economies. Chinese and Indian companies are in a symbiotic union with Western partners who rely on them for elements of the manufacturing process. These days, it is difficult to tell how much of a car or a computer comes from China, say, and how much comes from the so-called home country.

China and India

Is this a healthy relationship, and where will it all end? No one is quite sure. On the one hand, there is much talk of China and India taking jobs away from American or European workers. On the other hand, there is general agreement that both the American and European economies would be in far worse shape than they are today if they were not connected to the dynamic Chinese, Indian, or other Asian economies.

India is a democracy with a rising middle class coexisting with millions of slum-dwellers and peasants still trapped in grinding poverty. Much of its road network is in disrepair. China is a Communist dictatorship, with a rising middle class, and also with millions trapped in rural poverty. But its bureaucracy and its educational system seem to work better than India’s in some cases. For instance, China has created a high-speed road and rail network that has brought the largely rural hinterland into much closer contact with prosperous coastal cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou (Canton).

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