With the global financial crisis now more than two years old, and with the meltdown in the United States considered a foregone conclusion, it would seem that a book about the US's decoupling from Asia would be old hat. But it isn't.
It has been a long run for the United States. Bodies of American foretopmen have been buried in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macau virtually since it opened in 1821. American trade with Asia opened almost before the US became a nation. It has fought one major war and three hardly less bloody ones – if you count Afghanistan – over the last century. The US has guaranteed the sea lanes not only across the Pacific but in the South China Sea as well. The country is probably more inextricably tied to Asia than any other western nation. Its current president, Barack Obama, spent a major part of his childhood in Indonesia.
But, according to Simon S C Tay, chairman of Singapore's Institute for International Affairs, "dangerous trends are emerging from the current crisis that can – if unchecked – rapidly and fundamentally alter the relationship between America and Asia, and not for the better." Tay has written a well-informed, measured analysis of where history is likely to take both Asia and the United States. In his view, it is vitally important that the two remain coupled tougher.
The question, despite the Obama administration's internationalism, is whether the US will stay engaged with the region. Since the end of World War II, the Pacific Ocean has largely been America's lake. It has acted as a great power for both good and ill, promoting democracy and the protection of human rights within the limits of its powers and occasionally involving itself in some disgraceful incidents.
One of the most intriguing thoughts Tay brings out is that while the last half-century and more has been the great age of globalization, it has largely been the age of Americanization, not only of Asia but the world. As any longtime Asian journalist can point out, American brands – McDonalds, Starbucks, Ralph Lauren, Nike, American movies, American clothing – have maintained an easy cultural dominance in a variegated region that ranges from Japan to India at the same time the country was running up gigantic trade deficits with both China and India. In the last decade especially, the shirts, computers and a plethora of other consumer products that bear American names have been made in China or other nations close by. The US industrial plant has largely abdicated its primacy to Asia.
'The fact that China has continued to grow in the crisis and is leading the recovery amplifies the tale," Tay writes. "The narrative is further strengthened because China's growth Ha been melded into an even wider phenomenon of the rise across the region – from India to Mongolia, with Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and even Bangladesh in between. At different levels of society, for different industrial sector or segments of the market, Asia has been booming."