Asia’s fear of a weak America

Asia’s fear of a weak America

Financial mayhem. Iraq. Guantanamo. The image of the US could scarcely be at a lower ebb. But in Asia, at least, anger at the US may be turning to sorrow.

Those people who wanted to see the US taken down a peg or three are beginning to think more about a world with a weak US and a much stronger China, a world in which globalization has become a tarnished word, where old certainties have vanished and new unknowns loom.

Anglo-Celtic Australia, with its tight emotional and cultural bonds to the US, is not typical of Asia. Yet a recent opinion survey there gave a flavour of favourable shifts in sentiment toward the US that would likely be reflected in much of Asia.

Conducted by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, the survey showed that while a large majority of Australians continued to think that the US had too much influence on Australian foreign policy, trust in the US and belief in the importance of the US alliance had increased.

Meanwhile, although growth of trade with China has become more important to the nation’s prosperity, there was strong and pervasive concern that an increase in China’s power and influence would damage Australia’s interests. There was particular concern for investment by Chinese state-owned companies.

The significant shift toward the US seems partly connected to improvements in Iraq and to China’s rise. It may also be linked to expectations that the US is on the cusp of a change that would make it more agreeable. A noteworthy 73% favoured Barack Obama for US president, compared with 16% who preferred John McCain.

The poll was conducted in July, before the full force of the financial hurricane hit and showed an increase in positive attitudes to globalization, a sentiment that may have now been undermined. But events in the US have been a reminder of just how dependent Australia remains on the US as the mainspring of the global economy.

There is also a realization that there is not much value now in “I told you so" statements about the arrogance and greed of the US financial community or the hubris of a country that thought it could forever borrow from the world to finance a failing and unnecessary war.

Now, it is back to the realization that an economically crippled US is good for almost no one, not even a China that would like to supplant it in influence in Asia.

For all its recent success and demonstrations of power, its Olympics and space triumphs, China remains a developing country that has little technology of its own, limited capacity to lead and is often viewed as having long-term ambitions to restore the hegemony that it once exercised over its neighbours.

Most of Asia has bought into the US-led trade- and investment-based globalization that has brought prosperity to so many in East Asia and, more recently, has become the basis for raised expectations in South Asia. Asia cannot afford for that process to be reversed by the West.

Hence, Asia must look beyond the financial mess to the bigger problem of its impact on the US economy and its potential threat to trade. This is no time for making the US feel unloved.

It is time for wondering how a US facing huge fiscal problems can be persuaded not to further reduce its military presence in the region, which would increase the chances of a China-Japan arms race and perhaps lesser races elsewhere in Asia.

Much of this region has been frustrated by years of US obsession with West Asia, oil, Iraq, Iran and the special relationship with Israel. For many people in Asia, the US had forgotten that this was supposed to be the Pacific Century, with the US in partnership with East Asia as the global economic dynamo.

West Asia has become a graveyard for US policies. But that is no guarantee that a new administration beset with economic problems and fiscal constraints will focus more on Asia. More likely, the US will aim to curtail its global commitments. A mostly solvent Asia now needs to adopt a generous tone in its dealings with the US.

It is the best of time for recommitting Asia to free-trade principles, multilateralism and the free flow of direct investment and thereby encourage the US to remain on the path it mapped out after 1945.