CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni
CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni

Jiyoung Song on Asia and the West: "Whose Century?"

Nov 5, 2015

This interview provides additional thoughts from Global Ethics Fellow Jiyoung Song on the topic of the conference panel she participated in: "American Century, Asian Century, or Nobody's Century?"

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see the end of the American Century, the beginning of an Asian Century, or none of the above? Why?

JIYOUNG SONG: The United States will still be the dominant power in the world's political economy as well as in science and technology for another century, not through its military expansion but through its democratic values, if it sticks to them. The U.S. still leads the knowledge industry, education, and technology. It chooses its friends, allies and partners in other regions strategically but also knows when not to intervene when they have disagreements among themselves. All Asian states want to have good relations with the U.S., even North Korea—although it has a peculiar way of trying to get the attention. The U.S. is in a strong position to make more friends in Asia. Of course, the biggest factor will be its relations with China.

DEVIN STEWART: Does it even make sense to talk about "Asia" at all? What do you mean when you say Asia? What do you think Asians say or mean?

JIYOUNG SONG: Geographically, Asia extends from Japan in the Far East and Iran in the Far West, Kazakhstan in the North and Timor Leste in the South, according to the UN, which doesn't make sense at all. Whether we include Russia and Australia is another matter. I don't see how a Korean can be put into the same category with an Iraqi, or a Tajik with an Indonesian. I don't think Asia can be considered as a single region, but only as a collection of sub-regions such as Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and West Asia, each of which can present more clearly distinguishable and identifiable ethnic and cultural traits.

DEVIN STEWART: How much longer do you think the U.S. will dominate in international affairs and how much longer will Asia grow? What are the most pressing challenges for both regions?

JIYOUNG SONG: The U.S. will dominate for another 50 years at least while Asia is growing. It's not a zero-sum game. The whole (i.e. the world) is more than the sum of its parts (states). The two regions' economies are highly interdependent and labor mobility makes global citizens' nationality less meaningful than before. While Asia's economy grows, its people are quickly becoming more educated and well-travelled. The U.S. and European life style and education attract many Asian elites. Many send their kids to American or British universities. In 2013, out of 2.1 million students and exchange visitors in the U.S., 1 million were from Asia .

Migration will be one of the most pressing challenges for both regions. Attracting high-skilled foreign talent and controlling low-skilled workers and refugees will be the most difficult public policy most states have to deal with. Competing for the same talent pool while guarding territorial borders and protecting national economies require complex decision-making.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a model for the state in Asia? Is there a common set of values? Is there a set of ethics that will be attractive to the rest of the world?

JIYOUNG SONG: Singapore seems to be admired by many other Asian states for its remarkable economic success, racial harmony, and public order. At the same time, it is also tarnished by its lack of freedom of expression and access to information.

Hierarchy, vertical human relations, discipline, self-cultivation, education, non-confrontation, communitarianism, and dutiful citizens can broadly be considered as common values. These individual values are good for keeping public order and harmony.

There is a wide misunderstanding about the Asian hierarchical order. For example, in Confucianism, there are five human relations and respective duties: 1) king and the subject; 2) father and son; 3) husband and wife; 4) elder brother and younger brother; and 5) friends. People easily assume that the person with the higher status will dictate to the one with the lower status. However, in reality, an older brother carries heavier material and normative responsibilities than those of the younger brother. This was true for the Chinese tribute system as well. The Chinese emperor was considered as the older brother for tribute states like Korea, Japan, or Vietnam. When Korea sent their envoys to the Middle Kingdom, they normally brought cheap horses that they traded with Mongolia. In return, the Chinese royal palace had to present expensive tea and silk. This was a materially losing game for the Chinese emperor. So the Chinese at one point had to tell Koreans to stop sending envoys.

Certain Asian religions and philosophies seem to attract people in other regions. Zen Buddhism and Taoism seem to have been popular among some Westerners who seek peace of mind, self-awareness, inner balance, and harmony with nature. Indeed, ethics that seek a balance between humans and nature seem to attract many Western audiences.

DEVIN STEWART: Can Asia lead by attraction? If so, what is attractive about the region?

JIYOUNG SONG: Definitely. In creative industries such as arts, fashion, music, and films, Asians have already entered the global market, generating multi billion-dollar businesses and attracting younger generations around the world. J-pop and K-pop are good examples. In 2012, Psy's "Gangnam Style" was the most viewed video in YouTube history, with more than 2 billion views generating a reported US$8 million via the site in 2012 alone.

In knowledge-based industries such as architecture, engineering, health, IT, science, and technology, Asia is also rapidly catching up with the West or overtaking it. Xiaomi, Huawei, and ZTE are winning market share with significantly lower-priced handsets than competitors such as Apple. And of course, there's Samsung.

Tourism attracts many Westerners to Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Indonesia. In 2014, there were 24.8 million international tourist arrivals to Thailand (Of which, 6.1 million were from Europe, and another 1 million were from the Americas). Nature, climate, cultural events, history, and food are very rich in many parts of Southeast Asia.

Another crucial point: the key is human capital. Asia is young. A total of 717 million young people aged 15 to 24 live in the Asia-Pacific region, comprising 60 per cent of the world's youth. Many health workers are from the region, especially from the Philippines. With proper education and training, these human assets can generate significant wealth and knowledge and increase productivity and innovation globally.

Asian ways of communication, using friendly, indirect, and less confrontational manners of speaking, are becoming popular in the service industry. Cheap labor is also largely an important factor. India and the Philippines, both countries where many people speak fluent English, offer world-wide customer service and tele-marketing.

DEVIN STEWART: When people talk about an Asian voice in international affairs, what do you think they mean? How is it different from a Western voice?

JIYOUNG SONG: They mean diversity and the intersection of identities. Diverse class, ideological (from community China to democratic India), ethnic, religious identities represent the Asian voice in international affairs, compared to the Western voice that has been deeply embedded in Christianity, democracy, and market capitalism.

There are also power disparities within Asia. When the Western media covers Asia, it's mostly about China. North Korea brings in interesting stories and gets disproportional attention compared to its size and power, because it has nukes and annoys its neighbors. North Korea is also a throw-back to an orientalist despotism cliché.

Diverse Asian voices should reach Western audiences much more than they do now. Asia is not China; China happens to take up a large portion of Asia but there are other states that matter more in U.S.-Asia relations in future.

In addition, more human interest stories from Asia should reach Western audiences. These stories are more than dictatorial perpetrators and their helpless victims. There are survivors, human rights defenders, freedom fighters, unionists, student activists, and sexual minorities. We need to give them voices.

While the world focuses on refugees flooding into Europe, boats full of Rohingyas (Muslim minorities in Myanmar) are being turned back by Asian states and Australia. A UNHCR periodic report released today estimates that some 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers' boats between January and March 2015.

There are many people suffering from under-development, lack of education, especially among girls, human trafficking, modern slavery, sexual exploitation, organ trafficking, sale of children, and child pornography. Instead of identifying them as victims, we also need to give them respect, agency, and the means to survive.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see conflict between Asia and the West as inevitable? How can we avoid it?

JIYOUNG SONG: No, I'm not a pessimistic realist. Conflicts are not inevitable; it can be avoided by trust among allies, effective communication, and careful negotiation. Peace can be maintained. An accidental war is possible, but we cannot predict this.

There are no intrinsic conflicts in Asian and Western values. Those who can speak one of the Asian and one of the Western languages, and understand different cultural values and ethics can help mediate any potential conflicts between the two regions. There are already many international and regional institutions and dialogues that are regularly organized exactly for this purpose. Even if there are no immediate outcomes, opening up the channels and dialogues in itself is meaningful exercises. What will emerge from these exercises is unknown, but at least they are not "strangers in the dark."

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