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America's Big Challenge: Asia

By Fareed Zakaria
Tuesday, October 19, 2004; Page A23

The presidential debates are lauded for having been substantive and revealing. In particular, people have noted how rare it is to have a serious discussion about foreign policy these days. Except that we did not have a serious discussion about foreign policy. We had one about Iraq. And thousands of miles away, there is a new world coming into being -- one that America is quite unprepared to handle.

There have been two great shifts in the international balance of power over the past 500 years. The first was the rise of Western Europe, which by the late 17th century had become the richest, most dynamic and expansionist part of the globe. The second was the rise of the United States of America, which between the Civil War and World War I became the single most important country in the world. Right now a trend of equal magnitude is taking place: the rise of Asia, led by China, which will fundamentally reshape the international landscape in the next few decades. For the United States, whether it is preserving jobs or security, recognizing and adapting to this new world order is key.

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China's rise is no longer a matter of the future. It is, depending on how you measure it, either the world's second- or sixth-largest economy. More important, it is growing three to four times as fast as any developed country. It is now the world's largest importer and exporter of many commodities, manufactured products and agricultural goods. It will soon be one of the largest exporters of capital, buying companies across the globe.

India is growing with impressive resilience and determination. And because of its size, it adds another huge weight to the Asian balance. East Asia has been in a long boom for more than 30 years. Asians are also the world's biggest savers, and their savings have financed the deficit spending of the United States. While there may be temporary reversals for a year or two, the long-term trend is clear.

Take an important example: One of the reasons the United States has been able to dominate the global economy has been its awesome lead in science and technology. But here too Asia is gaining strength. From computer science to biotechnology, one can see the beginnings of Asian science. It's at a very early stage, but again, the arrow is moving in only one direction. Physical Review, a top science journal, notes that the number of papers it publishes by Americans has been falling dramatically, from 61 percent of the total in 1983 to 29 percent last year. The journal's editor told the New York Times that China, which now submits 1,000 a year, has sharply increased its share of the total.

With economic growth comes cultural confidence and political assertiveness. The West has long taken Asia for granted, seeing it as an investment opportunity or a stage where Great Power rivalries could be played out, as in Vietnam and Korea. But this too will change. China and India are both proud and ancient civilizations. They also have large internal economies, not totally dependent on exports to the West. (In the wake of the East Asian crisis of 1997, all the East Asian tiger economies collapsed. But China and India grew solidly, even when demand from the West dried up.) This rise of confidence is just beginning -- it's clearly visible in trade negotiations -- and will only grow with time.

The United States will remain the most powerful country in the world. But the gap between it and these new Great Powers will slowly shrink. And to continue thriving, it will have to adjust to the rise of Asia. Asians should also hope that America focuses on this new world, because only the United States can ensure that Asia's rise comes about in a way that is beneficial to both Asia and the world. Otherwise the challenge from Asia could easily produce a retreat into fear, protectionism and nationalism all around.

In his novel "Cakes and Ale," Somerset Maugham created a character who derided the celebrated American expatriate Henry James for focusing his writings on upper-class life in Europe in the early 20th century. Maugham complained that James had "turned his back on one of the great events of the world's history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses."

The analogy is not exact. The war on terrorism is crucial; winning in Iraq is necessary; Middle East peace is important. But I wonder whether, as we furiously debate these matters in America, we resemble Englishmen in the waning days of the British Empire. They vigorously debated the political and military situation in remote areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan (some things don't change). They tried mightily, and at great cost, to stabilize disorderly parts of the globe. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the United States was building its vast economic, technological and cultural might, which was soon to dominate the world.

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