April 29, 2008, Kishore Mahbubani

(click to enlarge) Robert Hathaway, left, Jack Garrity, Kishore Mahbubani, and Satu Limaye, discuss U.S. foreign policy toward Asia at the East-West Center in Washington on April 29, 2008.

U.S. Policy Towards Asia: An Asian Leader’s Advice for the Next American President

The spectacular rise of China and India has created new geopolitical realities with far-reaching implications for U.S. foreign policy. Kishore Mahbubani—Dean and Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and former Singaporean Ambassador to the United Nations—discussed these realities as they are laid out in his new book, The New Asian Hemisphere (PublicAffairs, 2008), in a seminar on April 29, 2008, co-sponsored by the East-West Center in Washington and the Asia Society.

Jack Garrity, Executive Director of Asia Society Washington, opened the event by highlighting the historically negative views of certain Asian counties by Western media, including prominent news sources such as the International Herald Tribune and CNN.  Since then, Asian countries have grown in strength, both economically and politically. The emergence of China and India in recent years has silenced critics and has drawn the attention of Western countries.

Speaking broadly of Asia’s role in the world, Mahbubani called upon policymakers in the West do more to recognize the efforts of Asian countries. He predicted that, “In the next 50 or 100 years, China, India, and Japan will become dominant forces in world affairs” and argued that managing the growing strategic alignment of the West and the East will be critical. He also noted that Asians have formulated the strategy of emulating the “seven pillars of the Western philosophy,” making use of them to suit their own nations’ needs. For example, China has transformed into a flourishing free-market society, successfully applying free-market economics to their financial system, which is still making great strides today.

While the West holds much responsibility in the international community and has provided many solutions to global issues, it “is still a big part of the problem,” said Mahbubani. He spoke critically of international organizations such as the IMF and World Bank, in which Asians have been given limited opportunities to participate and lead. Even in the UN Security Council, he argued, Asia plays a less important role than other European countries, despite its huge populations. Mahbubani advocates for changes that would allow Asian nations to gain their deserved international representation and break out of their roles as bystanders.

According to Mahbubani, the West is also becoming increasingly “incompetent” in its foreign relations policies—most notably with the Islamic World—and has been unable to deliver solutions for fundamental global problems such as global warming.  The West’s failure to negotiate trade agreements and denuclearization programs has also been disappointing. Unlike Asian leaders, who take into account the long-term effects of their policies, Mahbubani stated that Western leaders tend to think in “24-hour cycles,” and urged these leaders to be more far-sighted in their strategic planning. The attendance of important Asian summits by top officials would positively affect relations, he said. 

Discussant Dr. Robert Hathaway, Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, agreed with Mahbubani that the shift in China and India’s strategies from regional to global players represents a “plastic moment” for relations between the East and the West. Commenting on The New Asian Hemisphere, Dr. Hathaway also questioned the use of the terms “West” and “East” and called for more clarification to explain the placement of Japan and Russia under this problematic binary. Concerns were also raised as the discussant questioned whether or not Asia possessed sufficient capabilities and resources to cure growing international problems. In his opinion, the East and the West should cooperate and combat transnational issues affecting countries across the globe.

Dr. Satu Limaye, the Director of the East-West Center in Washington and our third discussant, contributed his thoughts on the pervasive interchange of Western and Eastern culture and thought.  Asian students now contribute the most to the U.S. H-1B visa quota, and the number of naturalized Asians in the U.S. has doubled over the last decade—these are indicators of the great rate at which East-West exchange is taking place.  Limaye underscored that reports on Asian-related topics are increasingly making news headlines and reaching common Americans through the media, giving more attention to our Asian counterparts. To parallel this, South Korean relations with the U.S. are warming, as are U.S.-Indian strategic relations. The rising prominence of the Asian markets will also help to guide East-West relations, aided by the fact that “China’s and India’s financial stronghold is greater than that of the other European countries combined.”

Mahbubani concluded by stating that we are witnessing a “modernization of Asian countries without the Westernization.” One provided example was that IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) graduates are increasingly choosing to live in India upon graduation despite the historical preference for foreign employers. Education, one of the seven pillars of Western philosophy, may be the key. Mahbubani observed that the current hunger for knowledge and modernity in Asia is unprecedented, as demonstrated by the sheer size of a Chinese university’s satellite campus in Guangzhou, which has over 100,000 students. Closing with some basic advice for next U.S. President, Mahbubani called for the next administration’s schedulers to make the Asia-Pacific region a real priority, as “there is no substitute for face-to-face negotiations and meetings.” He also hopes to see changes made in the Western mindset which will place a larger emphasis on math and science education and worldliness through more studying abroad.