International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: Asia's fear of a weak America
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

HONG KONG: Asia's fear of a weak America

Financial mayhem. Iraq. Guantánamo. The image of the United States could scarcely be at a lower ebb. But in Asia, at least, anger at the U.S. may be turning to sorrow.

Those people who wanted to see the United States taken down a peg or three are beginning to think more about a world with a weak U.S. 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 United States, is not typical of Asia. Yet a recent opinion survey there gave a flavor of favorable shifts in sentiment toward the United States 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 United States had too much influence on Australian foreign policy, trust in the U.S. and belief in the importance of the U.S. 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 United States seems partly connected to improvements in Iraq and partly to China's rise. It may also be linked to expectations that the U.S. is on the cusp of a change that would make it more agreeable. A noteworthy 73 percent favored Barack Obama for U.S. president compared with just 16 percent that 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 United States have been a reminder of just how dependent Australia remains on the U.S. as mainspring of the global economy. China should stimulate its economy and its imports, partly offsetting what looks set to be either a steep or a prolonged recession in the United States and probably Europe.

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 U.S. 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 United States 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 neighbors.

Most of Asia has bought into the U.S.-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 U.S. economy and its potential threat to trade. This is no time for making the U.S. feel unloved.

It is time for wondering how a U.S. 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 U.S. obsession with the Middle East, oil, Iraq, Iran and the special relationship with Israel. For many people in Asia, the U.S. had forgotten that this was supposed to be the Pacific Century, with the U.S. in partnership with an East Asia as the global economic dynamo.

The Middle East has become a graveyard for U.S. 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 United States will aim to curtail its global commitments. A mostly solvent Asia now needs to adopt a generous tone in its dealings with the United States. 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 United States to remain on the path it mapped out after 1945.