Asia is changing dramatically but the United States is losing the plot. The region is being stitched back together in ways that could make the United States less relevant in each of Asia’s constituent parts. Asians are, in various ways, passing America by.
Recent articles in the Financial Times, New York Times, and other major media have delved into China’s grand new plan to reconnect Asia with a network of massive infrastructure projects. This so-called “One Belt, One Road” effort, launched to great fanfare by President Xi Jinping in 2013, evokes the ancient Silk Road that stretched from Asia to Europe and saw goods, people, and technology move across continental caravan routes and well-trafficked sea lanes. The "Belt and Road" is Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative and may soon include billions in new Chinese spending. On paper, at least, it is a classic example of economic statecraft, envisioning a series of China-sponsored rails, roads, pipelines, ports, and power stations spanning Asia, from Indonesia to Turkmenistan and beyond.
Some argue that this Chinese initiative aims to construct a Sinocentric Asia and dislodge the United States. But in fact, the competitive challenge America now faces in Asia is bigger, broader, and has deeper roots.
Put bluntly, Asia is being reconnected, strategically and economically. Ultimately, the region could, in important ways, more closely resemble the historical norm that prevailed for centuries prior to America’s arrival.
This change reflects trends that date back decades and is a function of the choices, actions, and capabilities of many Asian states — not just China but also Japan, India, and South Korea, among others.
Asians are, in various ways, passing America by.
The United States is badly prepared for this momentous rebirth, which is at once stitching Asia back together and making the United States less relevant in each of Asia’s constituent parts.
The question is not just whether or to what extent the United States is or isn't “pivoting” to Asia, as U.S. officials have put it. More broadly, the question is whether the United States, to compete in both geopolitics and business, appreciates the dramatic ways in which Asia is changing.
In this essay in The Washington Quarterly, written two years before Xi proposed the "Belt and Road" but, I fear, still all too relevant, I explored “Why America No Longer Gets Asia” and how the United States can adapt to these new challenges.
A follow up essay in Foreign Affairs several months ago pulled these threads some more in light of the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.