Siiting on the Sidelines in Asia

Small piece in the Economist today about the likely foreign policy path of Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda. To me, one of the most striking bits of the article was this:

Japan, they say, should lead the creation of regional mechanisms that would ease territorial disputes, enhance military transparency and boost confidence among neighbours—think an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Asia. Distracted elsewhere, the Bush administration has shown little interest in such ideas.

One of the major charges against the Bush administration has been its neglect of a variety of foreign policy goals. The administration has been playing catch-up in the last year or so, making some headway on the issue of nuclear armament in North Korea, and decidedly less progress in addressing the same issue in Iran- which is positioning itself now to be a major player in whatever situation emerges in the post-Saddam, perhaps post-Iraq, Middle East.

These two areas have often been cited as the most pressing foreign policy issues that were derailed by the ill-conceived Iraq war, but the Economist points out that there are other areas of foreign policy focus that have been allowed to slide. Israel is one where a dearth of effort in the early years of the Bush presidency allowed a situation to progress and deteriorate to the point that American preferences may no longer be relevant. But the issue that may have more serious consequences in the long run is the rise of Asia as an economic and political superpower, likely- particularly if PM Fukuda has his way- to be dominated by China and Japan.

While the Asian financial crisis of the late 90’s and early 00’s drained some international enthusiasm from the predictions of Asian economic dominance, there remains the promise of the huge and growing markets of China, India, and the rest of the region. The prospect of a country like China being able to market to its own citizens the wide array and vast volume of goods that it currently produces for European and American consumption has the potential to completely change the face of world economics. Effective institutions for establishing trade and property laws and settling resource and territory disputes would be the first step in turning Asia from a producer state for Western consumer needs into a self-contained system, in which a huge consumer population (and, by extension, a giant work force) is connected with manufacturing capabilities that are currently serving the needs of European and American markets.

There is still a lot that needs to happen before such events can transpire. Issues of governance and economic structure – corruption, market intervention, etc. – need to be addressed. But growth in the region- and potentially explosive growth- seems more likely than not, and a savvy American administration might be able to position itself to best take advantage of that growth.

The Bush administration, it seems, has little interest in such long-term plans. The emerging political and economic order of one of the largest growth regions of the world are being neglected, in order to address issues of Middle Eastern peace and security that were neglected until September 11th 2001, then took a giant step backwards in 2003-2007, and are just now showing signs of returning to a position slightly worse than where they were left at the close of the Clinton administration, seven years ago.

The question is: will Bush’s successor have a chance to dispense with the backlog of foreign policy issues in time to address Asian growth in a meaningful way, or will they be stuck doing the homework that W. skipped until the end of their term as well?

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