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.

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.

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).

However, in India, the rural poor have the vote, and powerful politicians must come to them at least once in four years. In China, the Communist party rules, not only at the center, but all the way down to the county level – to the paddy field level, one might say. Party chief Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have tried, not always successfully, to increase economic and social freedoms, while maintaining the party’s ironclad final authority.

Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea

And then there are the others. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, spreads out along the equator as far as from San Francisco to New York. It is a recent but solid democracy and, as Obama noted, its constitution enshrines freedom of religion, with Christians constituting a significant religious minority.

Japan has declined in population and in economic clout, but it is still the world’s third largest economy, behind only the United States and China. South Korea has less than half Japan’s population, but in key areas like cars, computers, and electronics, it competes vigorously with its island neighbor. And it is more internationally minded, although, during his stopover in Seoul, President Obama was unable to clinch a free-trade agreement that would have opened up Korea to American beef and cars. But Korea is closer to freeing its jealously safeguarded agricultural market than is Japan, as the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun pointed out Nov. 14.

A new form of US leadership

In the aftermath of World War II, and for many years thereafter, America was the unquestioned leader of the world. Today, its leadership and initiative are still essential to the smooth functioning of the global community.

How to lead, sometimes alone, but more often these days within the give and take of a team effort? For many Americans, this is a new and unaccustomed role. But if the United States is to recover and to thrive once more within a world that is also recovering and thriving, this is the task President Obama must now embrace.

Takashi Oka is a former East Asia chief correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. After retiring from the Monitor, he worked for Japan’s New Frontier Party (Shinshinto) and the Liberal Party (Jiyuto) as Staff Director of the International Department. His biography of the Japanese politician Ichiro Ozawa will be published early in 2011.

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