Ethical Challenges in Trans-Pacific Relations: Selected Essays, 2013 Contest

Sep 27, 2013

What is the greatest ethical challenge facing U.S.-Asia relations? In a pioneering contest, Carnegie Council challenged American and East Asian students to collaborate on this question. Read their answers in magazine form or download the PDF.

INTRODUCTION: Engaging Students in a Trans-Pacific Conversation on Ethics

It may be a cliché, but the world is changing. That was the theme of the U.S. government assessment of threats this year—as well as the contest that produced this book. For the first time, the U.S. director of National Intelligence listed cyber threats, displacing terrorism, as the top security risk to the United States. Along with President Obama's "pivot" or rebalancing of foreign policy assets toward Asia, this new security environment brings U.S.-Asia relations back to center stage in world affairs. Obama has declared American prosperity in the twenty-first century will depend on cybersecurity.

But will a corresponding set of cyberethics follow suit?

Some signs are encouraging. Increased tensions between the United States and China over cyber-attacks have pushed the two nations to agree on a new dialogue on establishing cybernorms—which happened to be the recommendation of the winning essay of Carnegie Council's 2013 Trans-Pacific Student Contest.

"Cybersecurity is a new issue, a global issue, and an important issue. Breaking it apart into its ethical underpinnings provides a framework for effectively addressing it at the bilateral level. Bilateral cooperation can, in turn, drive a broader global conversation on creating a system of norms that provides for a more secure cyber realm," write the authors.

Symbolically, our winning essay was written by a student from the United States and one from China, and it identified cybersecurity as the biggest ethical challenge in U.S.-Asia relations. The authors, Robert D. O'Brien and Shiran Shen, will be invited to join Carnegie Council's annual Global Ethics Fellows meeting in New York City. These annual meetings aim to advance ethical dialogue between cultures, and perhaps can play a role in finding peaceful solutions to international disputes.

This year's Trans-Pacific Student Contest was a first for us in some ways, and we are happy to report that our experiment was a success. Carnegie Council has held international student contests for years but this was the first time we asked Americans and Asians to collaborate on submissions, which included both essays and videos, and all submissions were posted online for public viewing.

The collaborative nature of the project suggests that the arguments reflected concerns that were shared across the Pacific Ocean. This is to say, the issues identified were not those particular to one cultural perspective; they reflected a more pluralistic view. Moreover, the submissions were created by students, so the insights represent the concerns of the next generation.

Along with cybersecurity, topics of other student submissions also mirrored changes in U.S.-Asia relations and in the world at large. Some of those topics included the opening of Myanmar, the rise of China and increased threat of war, the moral conundrums of sweatshop labor and economic growth, and the challenge of inter-generational justice and climate change disasters.

Just a couple of years ago, few people would have imagined that, after decades of isolation, Myanmar would open its doors to the world so dramatically. Despite crumbling infrastructure, challenges in healthcare and education, and spreading religious violence, Myanmar's democratic change represents hope to its people as well as to many around the world, as students noted. After President Thein Sein's first official White House visit, Myanmar became host to the prestigious World Economic Forum meeting in its capital Naypyidaw in June.

Nevertheless, Myanmar's religious strife demands a strategic rethink in U.S. policy, argue authors Thaw Zin Aung Gyi and Reid Lidow. "If the U.S. is serious about the pivot, and recognizes its ethic of responsibility to Myanmar, then it will work to build state capacity by shifting from a wait-and-see approach to a proactive "Three Pillars" [economic, political, and inter-cultural] engagement model," they write.

The world may be changing but old fashioned balance-of-power Realism is still in play. The rise of China—one of the most significant changes in international affairs today—has been accompanied by a growing risk from territorial disputes in East Asia. International relations theory tells us that when the balance of power shifts, the threat of conflict may increase. As students pointed out, these conflicts may be mitigated by managing the role of the military in addressing these disputes.

Authors Ana Martinovic and Iris Soriano point to a dilemma some military officers have noted in the past: "It may be a moral duty for the U.S. to comply to its security-treaty with Japan, but is it worth jeopardizing its relationship with China? This is an ethical challenge that the United States needs to confront."

Moral questions regarding sweatshops have been around since the Industrial Revolution. But the record deaths from the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh this spring forced average shoppers to consider the ethical implications of their purchasing choices. Yet are sweatshops a necessary evil of economic growth? Authors Benjamin Adam Schorr and Annabelle Wong remind us that, "Even as U.S.-Asia relations aim at boosting overall economic progress, these countries cannot overlook the moral obligation of respecting and defending fundamental human rights, and must continuously work at reconciling these divergent concerns."

Finally, scholars have explored the ethical implications of climate change. But its consequences, potentially including extreme weather, mass migration, and even armed conflict, will likely only become more apparent in the future, raising a question of inter-generational justice. Should current generations sacrifice economic development for the sake of future generations? Authors Tsering Jan van der Kuijp and Lin Lilin pinpoint this problem: "Most worrisome about climate change is not just how it will affect tomorrow's weather but how it will impact the children of the future. Out of this dilemma between boosting industrial production and curbing climate change emerges the greatest ethical challenge for China and the United States: how to safeguard the health and well-being of their people while guaranteeing the same for future generations."

Devin T. Stewart, Senior Program Director
New York City, June 2013

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