The ever-increasing allure of Asia

Updated: Nov 17 2005, 05:30am hrs
President Bush is in Asia to attend the Asian Pacific Economic Council in China, but he should pay attention to another Asian summit to which he was not invited. In December, Malaysia will host an East Asian meeting that deliberately excludes the US. According to many close observers, Americas attractiveness is declining in the region, where the allure, or soft power, of others has increased.

Asia has impressive potential resources for soft power. The arts, fashion and cuisine of its ancient cultures have had a strong impact on the rest of the world for centuries. But Asia went through a period of relative decline, as it lagged the industrial revolution in the West, and this undermined its influence. In the 50s, Asia conjured images of poverty and starvation. There was a brief political infatuation among some westerners in the 60s with Nehru jackets and the Maoist revolution, but it was brief. As John Lennon sang in 1968: If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you aint gonna make it with anyone anyhow. Asias resurgence began with Japans economic success. By the centurys end, Japans performance not only made the Japanese wealthy, but also enhanced the countrys soft power.

As the first non-western country that drew even with the West in modernity, while showing it is possible to maintain a unique culture, Japan has more potential soft-power resources than any other Asian country. Today, Japan ranks first in the world in the number of patents, third in expenditure on research and development as a share of GDP, second in book sales and music sales, and highest for life expectancy. It is home to three of the top 25 multinational brand names.

The decade-long economic slowdown of the 90s tarnished Japans reputation, but it did not erase Japans soft-power resources. Japans global cultural influence grew in areas ranging from fashion, food and pop music to consumer electronics, architecture and art. Japanese manufacturers rule the roost in home video games. Pokemon cartoons are broadcast in 65 countries and Japanese animation is a huge hit with filmmakers and teenagers everywhere.

In short, Japans popular culture was producing potential soft-power resources even after its economy slowed. Now, with signs of economic revival, its soft power may increase even more.

Japan has more potential soft power resources than any other Asian country
But its culture remains inward-looking; India and China offer great promise
Their foreign policies, culture, political and social values make them attractive
But there are limits. Unlike Germany, which repudiated its past aggression and reconciled with its neighbours in the framework of the European Union, Japan has never come to terms with its record in the 1930s and 1940s. The residual suspicion that lingers in countries like China and Korea sets limits on Japans appeal, that are reinforced every time the Japanese Prime Minister visits the Yasukuni shrine. Japan also faces serious demographic challenges. By mid-century, Japans population could shrink by 30%, unless it attracts 17 million immigrantsa hard task in a country historically resistant to immigration. Moreover, the Japanese language is not widely spoken, and Japans meagre English-language skills make it difficult to attract international talent to its universities. Japans culture remains inward-looking.

Looking ahead, China and India are the looming giants of Asia, with their huge populations and rapid economic growth rates. Not only are their military, or hard power, resources growing; there are signs that their soft-power resources are increasing, too. In 2000, Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian won Chinas first Nobel prize for literature, followed a year later by the Indian diaspora writer VS Naipaul. The Chinese film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, became the highest grossing non-English film and Indian movies like Monsoon Wedding were global box-office successes. Indeed, Bollywood produces more movies every year than Hollywood.

The list goes on. Yao Ming, the Chinese star of the National Basketball Associations Houston Rockets, could become another Michael Jordan, and China is set to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Large expatriate communities in the US2.4 million Chinese and 1.7 million Indianshave increased interest in their home countries among other Americans. Moreover, transnational connections in the information industry are close, as western high-tech companies increasingly employ affiliates in Bangalore and Shanghai to provide real-time services.

But the real promise for China and India lies in the future. A countrys soft power rests upon the attractiveness of its culture, the appeal of its domestic political and social values and the style and substance of its foreign policies. In recent years, both China and India have adopted foreign policies that have increased their attractiveness to others. But neither country yet ranks high on the various indices of potential soft-power resources that are possessed by the US, Europe, and Japan. While culture provides some soft power, domestic policies and values set limits. Particularly in China, where the Communist Party fears allowing too much intellectual freedom and resists outside influences.

Both countries have a reputation for corruption in government. India benefits from democratic politics, but suffers from overly bureaucratised government. In foreign policy as well, both countries reputations are burdened with the problems of longstanding disputes over Taiwan and Kashmir. Moreover, in the US, the attraction of an authoritarian China is limited by the concern that it could become a future threat.

The soft power of Asian countries, then, lags that of the US, Europe and Japan, but is likely to increase. Indeed, if the US continues to pursue unattractive policies, it may find its absence from the summit in Malaysia in December is a harbinger of things to come.

The writer, a former US assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard University and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2005