Can US Get Asia Right?
Professor at University of California, Los Angeles
Director of Asia Pacific Media Network
LOS ANGELES _ Let me move off-stage for a moment (well, just a little bit) and bring you some words of wisdom from some wise men about America and Asia. Please note that I will be interjecting occasional commentary in the following excerpts _ my comments appearing in parentheses.
“First, the United States must view itself as an Asia-Pacific power and decide to take part in all aspects of life in Asia (Yes!). At the best of times, the United States is seen by many Asians as a capricious power, too often driven by narrow domestic interests and ideological imperatives (Yes!). But even worse in the minds of many is a tendency for prolonged inattention to Asia (Isn’t that the truth!).”
The recently issued report from a famous Washington think-tank goes on: “Arguably, the United States presently suffers from a strategic preoccupation with another region of the world (Right, the Middle East _ so what else is new, eh?). If engagement in Asia remains episodic, or lacks sufficient senior-level involvement on the part of U.S. officials, a transition in the region’s power hierarchy is possible (What they mean is that if America losses its Asia focus, China could wind up preeminent in Asia virtually by default).”
The excerpt could profitably go on and on _ the much longer original is posted on the Web site of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies( CSIS): http://www.csis.org. The authors of “The U.S.-Japan Alliance: Getting Asia Right Through 2020” are two deep-thinking gentlemen who have been successful at getting Asia more or less right for most of their careers. Harvard Prof. Joseph Nye (Dem), former Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Richard Armitage (Rep), who until two years ago was the number-two in the Bush administration State Department, collaborated on the think tank’s bipartisan study group.
Others on the panel include Kurt Campbell, who was an ace Defense Department official in the Clinton administration; James Kelly, who did a yeoman job in Bush’s first term as the State Department’s Asia man, and Admiral (retired) Joseph Prueher, who ably finished out his notable military career as the Clinton administration’s last ambassador to China.
None of these fine men is looking for a fight with China, but they all signed the same report which emphasized: “Even absent precipitous events, a gradual erosion of U.S. influence could occur if China continues to extend its reach and if the region as a whole loses confidence in the staying power of the United States. [But] the challenges for the United States to remain active in the life of Asia are many.”
The panelists aren’t shy about listing them one by one. I agree with their list for the most part, but would add one additional factor that is often absent from these kinds of reports, conferences and discussions: the role of the U.S. news media.
Everyone on earth knows that the media in America is powerful _ perhaps too much so. Practically every undergraduate in a decent university has been exposed to professors chatting on about the “agenda-setting” power of the U.S. media.
This idea, however, is more than just academic footnote fodder. The power of the U.S. media in directing the American public’s attention to issues is awesome _ and this is not necessarily tendered as a compliment.
Has the U.S. media on the whole given Asia its fair weight? Armitage-Nye points out that Asia comprises more than half the world’s population, at least a third of its economy and probably will become this century’s most dynamic region. It features: (1) the unprecedented rise of two great powers _ India as well as China; (2) a reawakened Japan and possibly (by the year 2020) a gluedback- together Korean peninsula; (3) the rise of important new midlevel economic powers such as Vietnam; and (4) the increasing democratization (pray to whatever God you prefer that such continues) of Indonesia _ the Southeast Asian giant with more Muslims there than anywhere else.
But does the quantity and quality of international reporting in the U.S. media reflect this undeniable reality? If you are an American media consumer, have you ever wondered some days if anything else is going on in the world besides in the Middle East and maybe Europe?
The great Kishore Mahbubani, the former U.N. ambassador and now the Dean of Singapore’s new public-policy school, recently asked me why the U.S. news media so often get the basics of the Asia story wrong. In my response, I am afraid, I sort of went off on a tangent because I hardly knew where to begin.
In retrospect, the shortest answer would have been the best one: We get the Asia story wrong because too often our news media doesn’t think the American people care. This is why all serious journalists and the concerned U.S. public should take a look at the Armitage-Nye report: It explains to us why, about Asia especially, we should and must start caring a lot more.