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How America Can Cope with the Rise of AsiaPhoto of Mahbubani (right) with former Thai Foreign Minister and Burkle Center Senior Fellow Kantathi Suphamongkhon is by Ayla Dillard.

How America Can Cope with the Rise of Asia

Asia's most famous diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani, has been going around the world outlining just why the United States needs to pay attention to Asia.

ASEAN would be a natural partner of the United States if only the United States would wake up and realize its importance.

This article was first published by UCLA Today Online.

By Ajay Singh   

IT IS SOMETHING of a cliché to say that this is the "Asian Century." Few people know that truism better than Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations and dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

In fact, Mahbubani has devoted an entire book to Asia's growing power. Titled "The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East," the recently published 314-page tome has raised quite a few hackles in the West. Just last week, Britain’s "Economist" magazine dismissed the author’s "Asian triumphalism … [as] futile and unconvincing."

Undaunted and ever eager to spar with critics, Asia’s most famous diplomat — a product of both the East and the West, he was listed as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world by "Foreign Policy" and "Prospect" magazines in 2005 — has been going around the world outlining just why the United States needs to pay attention to Asia.

On Feb. 19, Mahbubani gave a well-attended public lecture at the Faculty Center. The talk, co-sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations and the UCLA Media Center, was titled "The Rise of Asia in the 21st Century: Can America Handle the Challenge?"

Tom Plate, adjunct professor of communication studies, introduced Mahbubani as a legend at the U.N. and an original mind “known for orienting ourselves in thinking about international relations in a new way.”

Understanding the Divide Between East and West

Mahbubani's latest book, along with his 1998 best-selling collection of essays and speeches, oddly titled "Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West," is required reading for journalism students at the UCLA Media Center, Plate said.

Americans will find it painfully difficult to adjust to Asia's rise because for the past 200 years or so the United States has presided over "a very artificial era of human history," Mahbubani said. Until 1820, he pointed out, the world’s two largest economies were consistently China and/or India, which now are the fastest growing economies.

"The main driving force of world history has always been the relationship between the world's greatest power and the world’s greatest emerging power," said Mahbubani. Despite China’s rapid rise, however, it's remarkable that there is little or no tension between Beijing and Washington, he added.

The reason is China's geopolitical competence. By helping legitimize the American occupation of Iraq in the United Nations in 2002, China gained American goodwill, Mahbubani explained. At the same time, the Chinese tied down the United States in Iraq, thereby effectively deflecting the Bush administration’s overtly hostile attitude toward China.

Focus on China

To deal effectively with Asia, Mahbubani recommended that the United States focus on China as well as Southeast Asia, where the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is creating all manner of cooperative networks among Asia's new powers.

"ASEAN would be a natural partner of the United States if only the United States would wake up and realize its importance," Mahbubani said. Instead, in September 2007, President Bush made a last-minute cancellation of a crucial ASEAN-U.S. summit "so he could have a photo opportunity of him visiting Baghdad airport," he added.

"When you do that, your policy is purely driven by the next news hour or the next 24-hour headline rather than by the long-term perspective," he observed, adding: "And this is another painful adjustment America has got to make."

Only through long-term multilateral process can the United States manage Asia’s rise, Mahbubani stressed. Unfortunately, a disdain for multilateralism, he added, has become a "very muscular element of American foreign policy."

On balance, however, Mahbubani said he was optimistic that Washington could forge a healthy relationship with Asia. "But it is not going to happen naturally," he warned. "It is going to require a lot of effort, a lot of new thinking."

Burkle Center for International Relations