Missing links in globalization

How Asia is drifting apart from Europe and America

by Philip Bowring

SCMP January 27, 2003

East and West are drifting apart: that is the clear message for an Asian visitor to the annual summit of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which ends tomorrow.
The trend has become apparent in several ways. While Iraq is the most obvious and immediate example, it is perhaps the least important in the long run.

The US has been the main exception to the decline in high-powered attendance, with three cabinet members and a clutch of politicians who may have thought they were in Davos to explain US policy on Iraq, but have mainly been subjected to a barrage of criticism.

Americans remain generally popular and the benefits the US has brought to the world should not be forgotten because of corporate scandals and some excesses on the security front after September 11, 2001. But contempt has risen to an unusual level at Washington's push for war.

The US seems determined on war with Iraq regardless of what weapons Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possesses or whether he seriously threatens anyone but his own citizens; or whether the UN or its major Western allies approve a conflict which promises far more "collateral damage" than any event since the Indochina wars.

The Europeans are contemptuous, the Arabs besides themselves with anger and the Asians look on with concern - notably Indonesia and Malaysia - about the domestic impact of US-led aggression. To some, US President George W. Bush already looks rather less rational than North Korea leader Kim Jong-il.

Visiting Davos to remind the world of a more intelligent, gentler US was a leader who would never have led his country down the path of extremist, aggressive unilateralism and who was willing to talk to Mr Kim: William Jefferson Clinton. The former president's sex life may have been an embarrassment but it seems to have been good for his emotional equilibrium.

The Iraq issue, however, divides East from West in another way. The US, Europe and the Middle East are all obsessed with this issue. It dominates the news and domestic political discourse. Yet, for most of Asia, it is still a distant issue. Davos has been full of doom-laden comments about the world on a precipice. But generally Asia does not share that sentiment, whatever it may think of the Iraq situation.

The assembled US and European economists and pundits make gloomy forecasts about "the world economy", based almost entirely on the perspectives of the US and Europe. Of course they are important to the rest of us. But if they bothered to read the data from Asia they would see that there is moderate to strong growth almost everywhere.

India, Thailand and Korea are all doing well enough that they can withstand low growth in the West.

The low growth contagion from the West can be avoided, just as Asia has suffered very little from Japan's past three years of near-stasis.

None of this means that Asia is immune from problems elsewhere. But the message here is that the Davos consensus has yet to understand how Asia - both economically and politically - is drifting apart from the interests of the Western world. Davos has lost interest in Asia, and vice-versa.

In some ways that might seem reassuring to a more confident Asia. But one must never forget that Asia-Pacific security still relies primarily on the American umbrella. So perhaps Asian leaders should speak up, remind Mr Bush that his obsession with Iraq could do huge long-term damage to its image and its vital relationships in the Asia-Pacific region.

The meeting seems to be losing its lustre, with fewer heads of state and government in attendance. The only Asian leader to bother this year was Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, presumably because it is his last chance before he steps down. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, usually keen to promote his international standing, did not come.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had planned a visit but her budget could not stand the cost of a trip to the pricey event. Hong Kong's small contingent is headed by a trio who underline the links between government and business: textile baron turned Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology Henry Tang Ying-yen, Cyberport pioneer Richard Li and Disney promoter Mike Rowse.

Asian participation is largely confined to Asia-specific issues, and the Africans are conspicuous by their absence.



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