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Why America No Longer Gets Asia

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
March 23, 2011

The author chats with Chinese traders in the Kara-Suu Bazaar, near Osh, Kyrgyzstan, October 2006. (Photo from the author)

I have a new article out in The Washington Quarterly, with a slightly provocative title, “Why America No Longer Gets Asia.”

It’s a think piece. And so it probably won’t be 100 percent persuasive to 100 percent of its readers in 100 percent of its aspects. But the article pulls together the strands of a lot of themes I’ve harped on in recent years, from speeches I was giving while at the State Department to a few years’ worth of articles and blogs. I also worked on an array of projects directly related to these themes while serving in the U.S. government, especially during the period from 2003 to 2007.

Here’s the headline: Asia is reintegrating, but the United States simply isn’t adapting quickly enough. And it is essential to adapt U.S. policy to the contours of change in Asia if the United States wishes to remain vital and relevant there.

Within a generation, the United States could find its firms at a competitive disadvantage in a part of the world that will constitute a huge chunk of the global economy. It could miss opportunities to work in new ways with China, India, Japan, and South Korea. It could find itself marginalized from Central Asia entirely. It could be a bystander to the economic and strategic dynamics that are quickly reshaping the region. Without a new map of Asia that reflects the ways in which Asians themselves are remaking their continent, U.S. relevance—and influence—will wane in coming decades.

Here’s a little context:

In the fall of 2006, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, I wandered through a bazaar in Kara-suu on the Kyrgyz—Uzbek border. The bazaar is one of Central Asia’s largest and a crossroads for traders from across the volatile Ferghana Valley—Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and many others. But most remarkably, it has become home to nearly a thousand Chinese traders from Fujian, a coastal province some 3,000 miles away, lapped by the waters of the Taiwan Strait.

For a thousand years, this was pretty much the natural order of things. Asia was deeply interconnected. Goods, capital, technologies, ideas, and religions, including Buddhism and Islam, moved across Silk Road caravan routes and over well-trafficked Asian sea lanes. But between the 17th and 19th centuries, Asia fragmented. Maritime trade swamped continental trade. ‘‘The caravel killed the caravan’’ as it became less expensive to ship goods by sea. China weakened. Tsarist armies arrived in Central Asia. And many of India’s traditional roles in Asia were subsumed within the British empire.

Today, after a 300-year hiatus, Asia is being reconnected at last. Chinese traders are again hawking their wares in Kyrgyz bazaars. Straits bankers are financing deals in India, with Singapore having become the second-largest source of India’s incoming foreign direct investment over the last decade (behind only Mauritius, which retains first place because of tax avoidance incentives). China lies at the core of industrial supply and production chains that stretch across Southeast Asia. And Chinese workers are building ports and infrastructure from Bangladesh to Pakistan to Sri Lanka. The governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have sold electricity southward, reconnecting their power grids to Afghanistan, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have signed an intergovernmental memorandum to sell electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean money is flowing across Asia.

In short, Asia is being reborn, and remade. Yet 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. Asians are, in various ways, passing America by, restoring ancient ties and repairing long-broken strategic and economic links.

The United States will not cease to be a power in Asia, particularly in East Asia where Washington remains an essential strategic balancer, vital to stability. That security-related role has been reinforced in recent months, as China’s behavior has scared its neighbors silly, from Japan to Vietnam to India. But unless U.S. policymakers adapt to the contours of a more integrated Asia, and soon, they will miss opportunities in every part of the region over time—and find the United States less relevant to Asia’s future.

I hope you’ll check out the article over at The Washington Quarterly.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Arun

    Old problem.
    “Beyond Western Hegemonies”
    by Giovanni Arrighi, Iftikhar Ahmad & Miin-wen Shih, 1997

    “The original and most enduring source of Western power in Asia has been the capacity of Western states to disrupt the complex organization that linked Asian societies to one another within and across jurisdictional and civilizational divides. This capacity has been rooted in Western advances in military technology on the one side, and in the vulnerability of Asian societies to the military disruption of their mutual trade on the other side.”

  • Posted by Gary Joseph Chandler

    For the past few months, I have been Posting in Forums how China will put a few factories in Thailand and bribe a few politicians to put a highway on Thailand’s back to make Her their backyard loading dock.
    Also, China, though they failed with Communism, will win the area with Capitalism.

  • Posted by Vikas


    I think the “original” reason why the West got a foothold in Asia was the decline of land-based Chiinese and Islamic empires in Asia – Mughal India, Persia, and Ottoman Turkey. The decline meant that no one could guarantee safety along trade routes particularly the hubs in Central Asia & Afghanistan. This was the time when the West began to consolidate as a technology and military power. It had a lot of liquidity thanks to the New world, with which it attracted the intra-Asia trade to the shores. What one can say is that once it consolidated its control over trade it did all it could to prevent intra-Asian trade from re-emerging. But the reliance on force came afterwards. Aurangzeb could have easily smashed the Europeans on the Indian coast but he didn’t. As early as the early 16th century European forearms experts were emeployed in the South Asian armies. They observed the weaknesses of Asians firsthand long before they could muster military power to exploit the weakness. So, force was not the original source of western power. It is a different matter that it has been the most enduring source of Western power in Asia and elsewhere.


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