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Why America No Longer Gets Asia

Dr. Evan A. Feigenbaum

(The Washington Quarterly) – 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 ValleyKyrgyz, 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.

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