A New Asia Finds Itself; the World's Most Dynamic Region Will Develop Even Closer Ties Next Year, Which Is Good News for All

Article excerpt

Byline: Kishore Mahbubani (Mahbubani is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and author of the forthcoming "Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World.")

When I relocated from New York to Singapore in early 2004, I expected to move from the bright side of the planet to a less bright region, given the recent woes of Southeast Asia. What I did not expect was the new spirit of optimism in the region, something that could eventually infect America and Europe, and relieve some of the gloom with which 2005 is being received.

This optimism is not a passing fad. Indeed, it may well be the culmination of a centurylong process of Asian nations' finding their individual development paths. The region's giants--China, India and Indonesia--all seem to be moving ahead on a positive long-term trajectory. China's economic success story is now well understood. In India, where the ouster of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party seemed to cast doubt on the commitment to economic reform, the transition to a center-leftist coalition led by the Congress party has been seamless. And Indonesia has returned to political, if not economic, stability, after holding successful legislative and presidential elections in 2004.

But the story of Asia is not just about individual countries doing well, even if they do account for nearly half the world's population. It is about Asian nations and societies coming together in new ways. Borders in the region have traditionally been tough and impregnable. Now the virtues of borderlessness are creeping into local imaginations. New trade, economic, political and cultural connections are being spun all around Asia. These developments will make the world more stable and more prosperous for all.

The latest boost may well have been provided by China. Its decision to share the fruits of its growth with its neighbors is a radical one. Last month China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to create a free-trade area encompassing their countries by 2010. That's spurred Japan, India and even South Korea to pursue similar trade agreements with Southeast Asia. Not all these deals will come to fruition, but the move toward them illustrates the new dynamic operating in the region.

China looks set to become the chief trading partner of Asian nations, surpassing Japan and the United States. The Middle Kingdom is now Japan's largest source of imports, and South Korea's prime export market. Surprisingly, the trade between China and India has also grown significantly. Sino-Indian trade turnover in 2002-03 was $7.6 billion, an increase of 53.6 percent over the previous year. The figure is expected to top $10 billion in 2004, a noteworthy milestone as trade between the two countries barely touched $100 million a decade ago. Trade between China and Southeast Asia has grown equally fast, with volume likely to reach $100 billion by year-end, up from $75.5 billion last year.

But the story is not about trade alone. People-to-people relationships are also changing. Asia is awash in pop culture from Japan and South Korea. Youth in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore--as well as Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia--share a love for J-pop and K-pop. Some Chinese women reportedly ask plastic surgeons to change their faces to look like Korean stars. …