Asia’s rise doesn’t necessarily mean the West’s decline

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a growing geopolitical perception of Asia’s rise and the decline of the West.

To a large extent, East Asian countries have managed to control the number of infections and particularly the number of virus-related deaths proportional to population. By contrast, case totals are between 50 and 100 times higher in Europe and the United States. Even in Germany, which has put up the best fight against the virus in Europe, the COVID-19 fatality rate is almost 20 times higher than that of Japan or South Korea.

While the pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to economic activity in both the East and West, East Asia has a much easier path to recovery. China is acting as an engine of growth. Japan has seen an increase in capital investment (including planned investments) in manufacturing among large companies and the unemployment rate has barely passed 3 percent.

After emerging from the dark tunnel of the pandemic, East Asia may well be hailed as the winner and the West the loser.

After the successive attacks of the SARS, MERS and H1N1 influenza outbreaks, people across East Asia were already well aware of the need to prepare for a pandemic. Wearing masks to prevent the spread of infection is accepted as natural and within local cultures the decision to wear a mask is not understood as a statement of identity.

Moreover, there is widespread self-restraint and social pressure to balance the inherent tensions between individual liberty and privacy on the one hand, and social stability and order on the other. Legal constraints prevented the Japanese government from enforcing a lockdown, meaning the effort to suppress the spread of the virus was based on an appeal to the Japanese public for cooperation. Yet, Japanese citizens responded positively and actively participated in the government’s campaign to change behaviors.

Another factor has been the relative strength of statecraft, or governance, and the extent of public trust in government. In East Asian countries, people generally responded to their governments’ crisis response directives in the spirit of “public and private working together.”

In Europe and the United States, meanwhile, demonstrations unfolded as portions of the population rebelled against government measures regarding everything from mask-wearing to lockdowns. Across the Western democracies, state legitimacy has been shaken by demands for small government from the right and opposition rooted in claims of diverse identities and cultures from the left. A government’s ability to manage its state weakens when people doubt its legitimacy.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) recently concluded between 15 East Asian countries is a fitting symbol of the rise of East Asia and the decline of the West. The United States did not join this partnership, but that did not prevent East Asian countries from moving forward without it. After the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan exercised some imaginative diplomacy to conclude the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). China, meanwhile, showed a flexible diplomatic approach in the final lead-up to RCEP’s conclusion.

While RCEP countries may lag behind in terms of transparency and free trade, including the treatment of state-owned enterprises, they make up one-third of the world’s population, and boast a GDP larger than that of the European Union. Projections show that ASEAN will be the world’s fourth largest economy by the end of the decade.

Wendy Cutler, who led trade negotiations during the Obama administration, has urged the United States to rejoin Asian free trade frameworks such as the CPTPP, and warned that while “some (may) quickly dismiss the (RCEP) initiative….That would be a mistake…. We need to keep in mind that the current agreement won’t be the last word: (ASEAN-based pacts) typically call for improvements over time, making them ‘living agreements.’”

The COVID-19 crisis could further solidify the perception of Asia-Pacific Asianism — or “the Asianization of Asia” — that has arisen with China’s evolution into a global superpower and the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP.

But the post-pandemic world is no simple seesaw game in which East Asia rises and the West falls.

First, the pandemic is not yet over. No country in either East Asia or the West has found the optimal response to the pandemic that balances the three concerns of: protecting citizens’ lives and health; the economy and livelihoods; and freedom and privacy.

The future of the U.S.-China conflict is another unknown. American distrust of China, which has deepened over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, is unlikely to lessen under the incoming Biden administration. American values and strategic interests have been threatened by China’s military-civilian fusion industrial policy and its expanding “closed sphere of influence” in the Asia Pacific, its growing threat to the American way of life, and the weakening of the U.S. network of alliances. Meanwhile, U.S. allies (Japan, Australia, South Korea) and partners (Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore) have high expectations for an American comeback in Asia.

East Asia has no desire to exist within a dichotomy, whether in relation to the United States and China, China and Japan or East Asia and the West. Many East Asian countries rely on the United States for their security and on China for their economy. They must retain some ambiguity in order to walk a delicate diplomatic tightrope. This is equally true for America’s most important ally in East Asia: Japan.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun.