In Asian minds, America is a moving target. American society is rife with contradictions. Images of a stable polity, a booming economy, cutting- edge universities, blend in Asian minds with those of a parochial Congress, social violence and moral decadence. No black-and-white picture emerges. Complexity is the key word in understanding Asian perceptions of America.
The deep reservoirs of good will America accumulated in East Asia during the cold war have not dissipated. The East Asian economic miracle (now reviving) could not have occurred without the stabilizing U.S. military presence, open American markets and the flow of investment, technology and ideas from American corporations.
These reservoirs of good will are now sustained by continuing (if often unintentional) benign postures. The U.S. military presence remains crucial. The booming American economy has helped Asia make a V-shaped recovery from the financial crisis. American universities continue to educate Asia's best and brightest minds. Taiwanese and Korean students returning from America contributed to their national economic successes. Like a giant filtration machine, American society has nourished, developed and returned valuable Asian talent. This may well be America's lasting legacy in Asia.
Paradoxically, when U.S. policymakers and congressmen consciously try to do good for Asian societies, the results are often less than benign. The crude export of their political values is often accompanied by smug undertones of cultural superiority. This is most evident in the U.S.- China relationship, probably the most important relationship of the 21st century. An accident of history--a common fear of the Soviet Union--drew America and China together. Deng Xiaoping's forceful opening of the Chinese economy created another common interest. Tiananmen shook the relationship, which was further frayed by differences over Taiwan, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, charges of espionage and illegal campaign contributions and, of course, human-rights issues.
What has saved the day is a growing silent awareness among Americans that China, for all its shortcomings, is heading in the right direction: opening Chinese markets and minds to the outside world. Among Chinese, there is also a growing awareness that Americans have no malevolent intentions, despite maladroit moves. The U.S.-China World Trade Organization deal hangs in the balance. But it is riding on a wave of common sense that could bring it safely to shore.
It is difficult for Americans to acknowledge that their actions have had negative consequences. …