Former Singaporean diplomat and now leading intellectual Kishore Mahbubani has made something of a career of tweaking Westerners for what he sees as often condescending and culturally blinkered views of Asia, and often he’s right. Just as often, however, he suffers attacks of simple Asian chauvinism, and a typical case in point is his new Financial Times essay on why his native region has defied numerous predictions and avoided major war over the past year.
As Mahbubani notes, many prominent (non-Asian) analysts looked at China’s increased Asia-Pacific muscle-flexing in particular and feared that Beijing was both on a collision course with its neighbors, and behaving as a classic rising power whose ambitions would soon clash with major interests of the established United States. And as he also notes, the worst of these dangers have so far been avoided.
According to Mahbubani, these predictions have proven wrong so far – and his own optimism proven right, because Westerners ignored “the Asian dynamic.” As he explains, for all their periodic bluster, Asians simply are too smart to fight each other. They know that conflict would threaten the spectacular economic development that’s been their overriding policy priority.
If Mahbubani is right, that would of course indicate a very steep learning curve for a region with no modern history of prolonged peace until very recently. And maybe economic success will do that. But Mahbubani seems to be missing a huge piece of the picture: the U.S. military presence in Asia.
As I’ve written recently, the Mahbubani thesis may be getting a test before too long, for ominous signs are appearing that, for all its strength, the United States may soon lose unquestioned escalation dominance in the region. The continual strengthening of Chinese and North Korean nuclear forces is undermining Washington’s basis for assuming that the American homeland would come away unscathed in any confrontation with these countries. Therefore, the deterrent effects of U.S. forward deployments could be weakening.
If escalation dominance is indeed getting less dominant, the recent Pax Asiana could be threatened by an American decision to withdraw from the region, in the (quite understandable) belief that saving Seoul or Tokyo (or Singapore) isn’t worth risking Los Angeles or New York. But Asia’s current tranquility could also come to a sudden end even if American forces remain. All it would take is the a challenger’s confidence, justified or not, that Washington would blink in a showdown.
“As 2015 unfolds,” Mahbubani concluded smugly, “I would like to encourage all western pundits to understand the underlying Asian dynamic on its own terms, and not on the basis of western preconceptions.” He also might consider thanking his lucky stars that, so far, American military forces have made sure that Asians have not had to rely on their own supposed brilliance alone for the peace and security they enjoy.