As Asia emerges from the global economic crisis faster than the rest of the world, it is increasingly clear that the world’s center of gravity is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is equally clear that Asian states are not yet ready to assume the more meaningful leadership in global affairs that will be necessary to ensure that this tectonic shift can make the world more stable and secure than it has been. Asian states have a tremendous opportunity to rise to this challenge.
The signs of Asia’s rise are unmistakable. Over the past five years, China’s contribution to world GDP growth has steadily increased from one-fifth to one-third, and India’s from approximately 6 percent to 16 percent. Given their growing footprints on global economics, politics and the environment, it is now impossible to imagine any major international agreement without China, Japan and India on board.
China, in particular, has emerged as the key counterpart to the US in almost all major global forums, as well as international platforms for discussing critical transnational issues, from the six-party talks with North Korea and the G20, to talks about climate change. Some even call for establishing a US-China G2.
Asia’s new clout holds tremendous promise. If Asian domestic consumption increases, for example, global economic growth will depend far less on over-consumption by debt-laden Americans. This would help all economies. If Asian countries other than Japan commit to binding caps on greenhouse gas emissions, a global deal on climate change will be possible at this December’s Copenhagen Summit, even if developing Asia’s caps are implemented more gradually than those for the developed world.
Moreover, if China, India and ASEAN states take the lead in promoting a just resolution for the people of Burma/Myanmar, or if China proves more willing to press North Korea on nuclear weapons, these states will demonstrate that a world with multiple leading stakeholders can be safer than a world led by a single superpower.
Critics of the US’ record as a global hegemony make a strong case against a uni-polar world. US interventions in Vietnam and Iraq, its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and insatiable consumption of natural resources, its role in creating the current financial crisis, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and much else highlight the flawed record of the US.
Yet the US’ legacy of global leadership over the past six decades, warts and all, is unprecedented in its relative benevolence and positive impact. The US played the lead in creating the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, and international humanitarian and human rights law. It resuscitated its World War II enemies and fostered economic development in countries around the world, while establishing a security umbrella that helped Europe and Asia focus more on diplomacy and economic growth than on military competition. It opened its markets and laid the foundations for globalization and the information revolution, kept sea-lanes open for international trade and catalyzed the Green Revolution ... The list goes on.
However, weakened by the financial crisis, deeply indebted to foreign countries, bogged down in Iraq, facing major challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and feeling psychologically humbled, the US may no longer be in the same unrivaled position to lead the international community, even under the inspiring leadership of US President Barack Obama.