On the very morning of the Bush inauguration, the news broke that popular protests in Manila had for...
On the very morning of the Bush inauguration, the news broke that popular protests in Manila had forced Joseph E. Estrada to resign from the presidency.
The point of the exercise in the Philippines was to reclaim the political process from a weak-minded pol that aspired to 'Asian strongman' status. The gaze of those demonstrators was entirely inward. But in taking back their institutions of government from a shabby throwback to another era, Filipinos took an important step for Asia on the road from old politics to new.
And, without even meaning to, they sent a significant message to the new US president and those who will advise him on Asian affairs. The Asia of your father's time, they signaled to President Bush, is history. You can no longer look across the Pacific and reduce what you see to dominoes, military hosts, security protectorates, quick-buck equity markets, or export platforms with bottomless reservoirs of cheap labour.
Democracy can no longer be misused as a phony synonym for open markets, not if you want to understand the region properly and deepen US relations with it as it evolves in a new era.
Now, the term means something more in the way of every vote counts. There is something slightly overworked about the term inclusion. But it describes the quality and direction of Asian politics well enough nonetheless. It is the essence of the project, not just in the Philippines, but in Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere. To grasp this point entails a dramatic reorientation in the US view of the region.
A refreshed US view of Asia will come I have no doubt of this but only over time and only to the extent that Asians themselves require it. And how will that work? Well, to take the example most readily to hand, I am hard-pressed to imagine the current US president treating democracy in the Philippines with the same offensive insouciance as his father, who was a professed friend and admirer of Ferdinand Marcos. Another point worth making: this matter of a different US view will manifest itself in big politics, the kind we call "geo", as well as small. For it is intimately connected to another notion that is in for change the notion of unipolarity.
I'm reminded of something Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former secretary-general at the United Nations, wrote in Unvanquished, his bitter, openly anti-American memoir: "Single-superpower hegemony," he asserted, "is a transitory phenomenon." Boutros-Ghali delivers this sentence in the penultimate paragraph of his book. But it is freighted with significance. There's no disputing America's global power at this moment: Washington is the biggest foot of all, plain and simple. But what too few Americans fail to grasp is that we live in an interim, a phase that will lead to another in which global power is decentralised.
Is the Bush team ready for this? I doubt it. Too many of its members are imbued with ridiculous ideas of the US as the 'benevolent hegemon', and American society as the universally envied 'end of history'. The US as the world's single pole of power is probably among the first bits of baggage the Bush folk will pack whenever they travel across the Pacific. During his recent confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced his broad intention was to encourage "the spread of American values around the world". There's plenty of apple pie in that, but to the extent it is a perfectly pleasant-sounding statement, it is also the wrong statement, betraying an old sentiment that doesn't apply in a changing world.
Have you been watching the big geopolitical events in Asia lately? It takes a lot to get the dragon and the bear together, but Washington has managed it: Beijing and Moscow are now drafting a friendship treaty that will be the basis of a new strategic partnership. This is an explicit reflection of Chinese and Russian concerns about US power and Bush's plan to project it via a missile defense programme nobody in the world wants.
As this was announced in Beijing, China's parliamentary chairman, Li Peng, was midway through a nine-day visit to India, another of China's traditional enemies. Nobody expects a sudden revolution in ties between New Delhi and Beijing, but a thaw that is now many years in the making may soon become more apparent. Speaking in the Indian capital, Li talked of "elevating relations to a new height in the 21st century". Then came the truly curious part: "A multipolar world is safer and more conducive to development," he said on Indian television. "China and India should work together for a new economic order."
While Li was in India, that country was busily reconstructing its ties to Southeast Asian nations, which have long borne the sepia tints of Cold War distance. During Li's visit, New Delhi signed its first military co-operation agreement with Indonesia, which will allow for joint exercises and bilateral arms sales.
A small bit of the future, no doubt, though these are hardly small nations.
The timing was surely coincidental. But consider this: the Russians are reaching out, the Chinese are reaching out, the Indians and Indonesians are reaching out, and so are the Japanese, the Koreans, the Singaporeans, and others.
There's simply a lot of reaching out going on around the planet, safe to say. And so our world evolves.
The curious thing about Washington these days is how few people here seem even to register such developments. It suggests something between blindness and narcissism, and as a new and conservative administration plants its feet, I find the condition worrying.
Patrick Smith is in the US Bloomberg newsroom
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