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Why America no longer gets Asia

Author: Evan A. Feigenbaum, Council on Foreign Relations

I have a new article [1] out in The Washington Quarterly [2], with a slightly provocative title, ‘Why America No Longer Gets Asia.’

It’s a think piece. And so it probably won’t be 100 per cent persuasive to 100 per cent of its readers in 100 per cent of its aspects. But the article pulls together the strands of a lot of themes I’ve harped on in recent years, from speeches I was giving while at the State Department to a few years’ worth of articles and blogs. I also worked on an array of projects directly related to these themes while serving in the US government, especially during the period from 2003 to 2007.

Here’s the headline: Asia is reintegrating, but the United States simply isn’t adapting quickly enough. And it is essential to adapt US policy to the contours of change in Asia if the United States wishes to remain vital and relevant there.

Within a generation, the United States could find its firms at a competitive disadvantage in a part of the world that will constitute a huge chunk of the global economy. It could miss opportunities to work in new ways with China, India, Japan, and South Korea. It could find itself marginalized from Central Asia entirely. It could be a bystander to the economic and strategic dynamics that are quickly reshaping the region. Without a new map of Asia that reflects the ways in which Asians themselves are remaking their continent, US relevance — and influence — will wane in coming decades.

Here’s a little context:

In the fall of 2006, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, I wandered through a bazaar in Kara-suu on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. The bazaar is one of Central Asia’s largest and a crossroads for traders from across the volatile Ferghana Valley-Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and many others. But most remarkably, it has become home to nearly a thousand Chinese traders from Fujian, a coastal province some 3,000 miles away, lapped by the waters of the Taiwan Strait.

For a thousand years, this was pretty much the natural order of things. Asia was deeply interconnected. Goods, capital, technologies, ideas, and religions, including Buddhism and Islam, moved across Silk Road caravan routes and over well-trafficked Asian sea lanes. But between the 17th and 19th centuries, Asia fragmented. Maritime trade swamped continental trade. ‘The caravel killed the caravan’ as it became less expensive to ship goods by sea. China weakened. Tsarist armies arrived in Central Asia. And many of India’s traditional roles in Asia were subsumed within the British Empire.

Today, after a 300-year hiatus, Asia is being reconnected at last. Chinese traders are again hawking their wares in Kyrgyz bazaars. Straits bankers are financing deals in India, with Singapore having become the second-largest source of India’s incoming foreign direct investment [3] over the last decade (behind only Mauritius, which retains first place because of tax avoidance incentives). China lies at the core [4] of industrial supply and production chains that stretch across Southeast Asia. And Chinese workers are building ports and infrastructure [5] from Bangladesh to Pakistan to Sri Lanka. The governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have sold electricity southward, reconnecting their power grids to Afghanistan, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have signed an intergovernmental memorandum [6] to sell electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean money is flowing across Asia.

In short, Asia is being reborn, and remade. Yet the United States is badly prepared for this momentous rebirth, which is at once stitching Asia back together and making the United States less relevant in each of Asia’s constituent parts. Asians are, in various ways, passing America by, restoring ancient ties and repairing long-broken strategic and economic links.

The United States will not cease to be a power in Asia, particularly in East Asia where Washington remains an essential strategic balancer, vital to stability. That security-related role has been reinforced in recent months, as China’s behavior has scared its neighbours silly, from Japan to Vietnam to India. But unless US policymakers adapt to the contours of a more integrated Asia, and soon, they will miss opportunities in every part of the region over time — and find the United States less relevant to Asia’s future.

Evan A. Feigenbaum is Adjunct Senior Fellow for East, Central, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article was originally published on the Asia U [7]nbound Blog [7] of the Council on Foreign Relations on the 23rd of March, 2011.