US, Asia must rise to challenge of world leadership : Ex-envoy

Iseas conference on South-east Asia in the 21st century

FORMER American envoy yesterday said that unless the United States and Asia rose to the challenge of global leadership, the 21st century could become an age of alienation and conflict rather than one of prosperity for the world.

Mr Morton Abramowitz, who was US ambassador in Thailand in 1978, said that Washington, mired in domestic problems, had demonstrated a distinct lack of leadership since the Gulf war.

But, despite America’s declining economic and political influence, Asia’s fate would still rest heavily on the US economy and leadership for at least another decade.

“There is no one else to lead and no one else to cushion Asia’s difficult transitions,” said Mr Abramowitz, now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Speaking at a conference at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies on the region’s future, he said it would be in the interest of Asian countries to engage the US in the region by keeping markets open and maintaining a dialogue on security issues.

Assessing Asia’s capacity for leadership, Mr Abramowitz said only Japan and China had the potential to shape the world in the 21st century.

But even with its economic power, Japan would be limited by its political and economic insularity and the region’s concerns about Tokyo assuming a more assertive role.

China’s rapid economic growth could perpetuate an unco-operative, authoritarian communist regime and raise the spectre of military expansionism.

This made China’s claim to regional or global leadership even more dubious, he added.

While acknowledging Asia’s economic success, Mr Abramowitz questioned whether the region really aspired to “a global reach beyond the economic”.

He suggested that Asia also had to develop more pluralistic political systems and address its humanitarian and environmental problems.

Commenting on Mr Abramowitz’s speech, Mr Peter Chan, permanent secretary in the Foreign Ministry, said the failure of Japan and China to satisfy American criteria for world leadership did not make Asia any less significant in the next century.

“If this is a prediction about the irrelevance of hegemony, then I am all for it,” he said.

Mr Chan said Asean’s experience showed that the absence of leader-states made prospects for peaceful co-operation that much brighter.

Under such conditions, a 21st century Asia could have a massive impact on the world economically and develop viable alternatives to classical development and political models.

Modernisation, and the choices it created, was the larger meaning of the democratic process in Asia, he added.

“It differs profoundly from blind conformity to a laundry list of exogenous rights.”

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