Renewing American Ideals in Asia

M. Osman Siddique (Ambassador to Fiji, Tonga, Nauru and Tuvalu, 1999-2001)

Published in the December 23, 2011 issue of The Straits Times (Singapore)


As President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently observed, a major focus of American attention in the coming decades will be to expand and deepen American relationships with the Asia-Pacific region. Approximately 40 percent of America’s export earnings are generated in Asia, and the region is poised to be the United States’ fastest growing market. The economic growth in Asia is shifting the overall architecture of the global economy – and the US must play a decisive role in shaping Asia’s direction and significantly increase America’s participation in this new global economy.

Since the accession of Hawaii as its 50th state, the US has had a significant Pacific presence. Given its unique geography, the US is both an Atlantic and Pacific power. And among his many firsts, Mr. Obama, born and raised in Hawaii, is also America’s first “Pacific President” who spent a part of his own childhood in Asia. Never before have the substantive and the symbolic been so well aligned to propel a robust and creative re-engagement with and in Asia.

The Asian diaspora in the US is also an important element of America’s success formula. Asian sensibilities and sensitivities are now deeply embedded in our national identity, and have become an integral part of the American mosaic. Asian Americans are increasingly visible in their representation of America. Asian Americans in public service include Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, governors and other high-ranking government officials. More and more Asian Americans are now captains of industry and civil society. As a society, America is increasingly embracing its Asian heritage and Asian roots in a uniquely inclusive American fashion.

The American approach under President Obama and Secretary Clinton has purposefully taken the longer view. It explicitly recognises that enduring partnerships are multifaceted – they eschew a zero-sum attitude and seek a higher level of mutual benefit and mutual aspiration. This is based on a clear-headed recognition of economic, political and security self-interests, but reinforced by a deeply held mutual respect. These relationships are not state-to-state or business-to-business alone, but must involve the full spectrum of our intellectual, cultural and civic institutions.

The US remains a magnet for Asian students, and it is a good thing. Many will go back and some might opt to stay, but in either case, the US must ensure that their commitment and connection to America remain strong. They can work together with America to address current crucial challenges. The issues that will define America’s future – energy and environment, education, health care, human rights, caring for the aged, and others – are all where we need to learn and innovate together.

Asia itself is quite diverse and increasingly the new pan-Asian challenge will be to maintain regional progress without being dominated by one culture or nation. Despite the misadventure in Vietnam, the overall American stance in Asia has not been hegemonic or territorial. Friends and even sceptics in Asia know that an American presence and engagement helps maintain a sense of equilibrium.

America will be increasingly called upon to provide the security reassurance, hence the introduction of a modest military presence in Australia. But even more importantly, the US will be called upon to contribute American know-how and values – such as fair trade, adherence to human rights and transparency – in the development of the new Asia.

Despite the rough times America faces now, its iconic values of democracy and inclusion remain respected across Asia. This was perhaps best illustrated by Mrs. Clinton’s historic visit to Myanmar, which effectively broke loose the stagnated status quo. This is a contribution that perhaps only the US could have done.

Many Asian societies are grappling through a search for transition from authoritarian to tolerant and democratic impulses, and they look to American ideas of democracy and technologies of Facebook and Twitter.

Throughout our history, America has navigated through periods of tension between its global engagement and a desire to retreat to isolationism. Tough times and election-year rhetoric tend to exacerbate and amplify these divides. As America deliberates and chooses in 2012, it is important to be mindful that America’s national self-interest is intertwined with the trajectory of Asia. Washington must view Asia not as a threat but as an opportunity for furthering essential American ideas and interests.