‘Politically immature’ Asia needs US to stay engaged

(This interview, with Simon S.C. Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, was published in DNA edition dated September 18, 2010.)

The economic rise of Asia, particularly after the 2008 global financial crisis, is widely acknowledged as a force for good. But the same economic forces that propel Asia ahead also come with the risk of accentuating a “post-crisis divide” from America, which – given the level of political immaturity in Asia – is “dangerous”, argues Simon S.C. Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.  Evidence of such “political immaturity” is manifest in recurrent tensions between India and China, recent tensions in the South China Sea, and the current diplomatic spat between Japan and China. Tay’s provocative proposition, which he outlines in his most recent book Asia Alone, is that the US must continue to remain engaged in Asia, but not with a ‘sole superpower’ mentality. In an interview to DNA’s Venky Vembu, Tay highlights the risk of Asia “going it alone”. Excerpts:

What are the forces driving Asia away from America, and why is it a bad thing?

The first factor is economics. Coming out of the crisis, Asia wants to be a more self-contained economy: what’s produced in Asia must increasingly be consumed here. The economic maturity of markets in Asia is welcome, but there’s a political side to this. Asia’s economic maturity outweighs its political maturity. There’s plenty of evidence of that: tensions in the South China Sea, tensions between India and China – the tenor of which signals they’re in for rocky times. Asia may mature politically and be peaceful, but that future is a while away. China is a vital figure in the question.

Isn’t it in fact China that wants the US ‘out of Asia’ because it sees Asia as its turf?

Chinese leaders have so far shown concerns about their own fragility, a clear limitation of their desire to be regionally hegemonic and dominant. Of course, they’ve also been reaching out to the world but mainly for their limited interest of resources, markets etc. The present generation of Chinese leaders won’t try to dominate Asia or push out America. But in the future, China will respond to a noisy ‘netizenry’, where young people, who have not experienced deprivation, are nationalistic. They believe that historically they’ve borne an insult, and are overcoming that, and this is their rightful moment. Sometimes the leadership plays this game too: protests and riots against Japan, even if they weren’t stoked, weren’t stopped either.

Recently, we saw US aircraft carriers enter the South China Sea at the invitation of countries that feel ‘intimidated’ by China. Is that how the US should re-engage with Asia?

No, but that re-engagement shows up the potential divide. Some people want a throwback to a time before China’s rise, to a time when America was the permanent guarantor of peace in the region. But the future requires adjustments on all side: for America, for China and also for the rest of Asia.

You say China’s ‘charm offensive’ is winning over ASEAN states, but in the light of recent tensions in the South China Sea, and Sino-Japanese tension, is that claim still valid?

At one point in time, China played a good game, but a truce that’s formed when both sides are relatively weak may not hold when one side becomes much stronger than the other. That’s what we see today. China’s self-perception has also changed.  There are elements in China’s People’s Liberation Army who, as China’s power grows, will seek a translation of their domestic power and project it overseas. This is what sometimes happens with India in the Indian Ocean region. But there are also an increasing number and range of voices in China. It may be unwise to read every statement coming from officials as the ‘sanctioned’ party line. We may be seeing a stage where Chinese officials are being encouraged to think a little bit more autonomously.

In your book, India seldom finds mention in discussions on the emerging Asian architecture. Why is that?


India’s economic rise is dramatic and it is going to be a growth story of Asia. I also think the ‘Look East’ policy marks a change of heart. But let’s do a reality check – and I’ being frank. American audiences, when they see Asia, see China everywhere, and India only peripherally. The same is the case with South East Asian audiences.

It signals to me a limitation of Indian diplomacy. India has very few foreign affairs specialists: just a few hundred diplomats running around. For a country that has ambitions to engage with Asia and the world, that’s inadequate.

Secondly, India’s style of diplomacy is spectacularly successful in, for instance, the Group of 77, and so on. But when it comes to negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN, it ends up ruffling feathers. China, on the other hand, went out of its way to ensure that an FTA with ASEAN was a strategic political initiative rather than a WTO-style bargaining. India’s economy is only a third or a fourth the size of China’s. But although ASEAN is a lot smaller than India, it has an outsized political role in Asian regionalism.

You appear to dismiss India’s wariness about Chinese actions in South Asia as ‘conspiracy theories’…


I say ‘conspiracy theory’ because it is, in a sense, an obsession with Indian strategic thinktanks. Chinese thinktanks aren’t obsessed about India in the same way. I don’t mean that Indian thinkers don’t have a basis for that: I’ve acknowledged the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ theory. There may not be outright war noises, and diplomats from both sides cooperate at various international forums. But we’re a long way from pan-Asian peace and prosperity.


Is there a risk of a new Cold War between India and China?

There’s a risk of that, yes. It’s startling for me to see how little India and China know about each other. We have to recognise that perception gap and the dangers that come with it. India has to invest in scholars and experts who will deepen an understanding of China. The same is the case with China. Compared to the number of Chinese who track America or even Europe, and the number of Indians who look at those areas, the intra-Asian understanding is very low.

You make the point that the US too has to make adjustments. In what way?

America has to get used to the fact that it is essential but no longer the only player in Asia – and that it must be willing to listen as much as to talk. It must face up to this sense of limitation – economically, in terms of military and political power, and in terms of attention span.

It’s inevitable that the rise of Asia will have economic – and cultural – significance for America. Some Americans are getting used to it, but the bulk of them aren’t. In small-town America, there are people who haven’t been out of their own state. Those people are in for a rude awakening, because Asia is coming knocking on their door. They’ve been insulated, and they hear only negative stories about Asia. Counter-globalisation attitudes are rising in America: the notion that Americans lost their jobs to India and to China or that China exports mercury-laced toys or competes unfairly on trade. They need to hear other, positive narratives about Asia.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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