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Softcover: Singapore: The great divide: Can Asia and the US work together?

With past mistakes now compounded by the economic crisis, America’s role in the region is due for a makeover

By J. Michael Cole  /  STAFF REPORTER

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The global economic crisis, added to missteps by the administration of former president George W. Bush, widened the space between the US and Asia in a process that could have far reaching implications economically and politically, Simon Tay argues in a timely new book.

While the re-emergence of China as a regional power, and the attendant US malaise, figure prominently in Asia Alone, the seeds of the growing divide between Washington and Asia, Tay tells us, were actually sown during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998. What Tay refers to as the “Asian surrender” is epitomized by then-IMF president Michel Camdessus “standing imperiously, arms folded,” while Indonesian president Suharto signed harsh IMF prescriptions to save his country’s economy. At the APEC summit in Kuala Lumpur the following year, then-vice president Al Gore “surprised” his audience during a dinner for business leaders by calling for greater democracy in Asia rather than delivering the expected pro-business slogans.

What Camdessus and Gore managed to accomplish, the author claims, is to alienate a community of nations that was slowly beginning to come together, an insult that in the following decade would be exacerbated by Bush’s “arrogance” and poor showing on human rights and US exceptionalism during the financial crisis, where it avoided the very prescriptions imposed by the Washington-based IMF in 1997-1998.

As regional organizations like APEC and ASEAN came into being, a sense that Asia, with the Chinese powerhouse at its center, could act more independently — or beyond that, isolate itself from the rest of the world, in a feat of self-sufficiency — has slowly emerged. Spurred by nationalism (mostly in China), this development was compounded by the global economic crisis, which gave rise to finger pointing, with the US more often than not at the receiving end.

Publication Notes

Asia Alone: The Dangerous

Post-Crisis Divide From America

By Simon S.C. Tay

206 pages

John Wiley & Sons


Tay warns us that if that trend were to continue, the US could find itself excluded from a region that is increasingly seen as both the global engine for growth and a source of conflict. Such an outcome, he argues, is undesirable, as the US remains the greatest guarantor of the stability and security that contributed to Asia’s rise in the first place. Furthermore, as ASEAN has yet to prove its mettle as an effective guarantor in terms of conflict resolution and a forum for problem solving, and with a power imbalance within the region probably unseen elsewhere, no single country, let alone multilateral body, has the capacity to fill the vacuum that would be created by a US retreat. Given lingering historical tensions, such as those between Japan and China, or India and China, the region would face great uncertainty, if not instability, if the pacifying effect of US engagement were suddenly to disappear. As such, replacing one hegemon with another — in other words, substituting the US for China — is not an option for the foreseeable future.

This does not mean, however, that the key to success in Asia lies in a return to the past. In fact, Tay states, the global financial downturn, which led to a relative decline in power for the US vis-a-vis Asia, has permanently altered the global architecture, and there is no going back to the status quo ante. The principal implication of this transformation is that the US will have to adopt a more multilateral approach to Asia, one in which it learns how to cooperate rather than dictate — a role that could take Washington years to become accustomed to, though Tay already gives the Obama administration good marks in that regard.

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