A Gaping Silence; Free Riders: If Logic Drove History, China, India and Japan Would Be Leading the Effort to Define a New World Order. but They're Not

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Byline: Kishore Mahbubani (Mahbubani, a former diplomat, heads the school of public policy at the National University of Singapore.)

There are two great certainties of the early 21st century. First, Asia's role in the world will increase. Second, the institutions created in 1945 will have to be re-engineered to meet the needs of the new century. If logic drove history, then Asians would be providing leadership to design the new world order. Curiously, the opposite is happening. There is a loud silence from Asia.

There are reasons for this. Domestic priorities trump global challenges. Hu Jintao's priority is to keep the Chinese political and economic system on the rails while maintaining high-speed economic growth. The main external priority is to keep China's borders peaceful, not to promote China's global power. Indian Prime Min-ister Manmohan Singh also has no imperial dreams. His goal is to propel India ahead faster than the traditional "Hindu rate of growth" (5 percent). An India bogged down in conflict with Pakistan cannot become an economic magnet, hence the new tone in Indo-Pakistani relations. Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's prime minister, believes in sustaining the old parameters of Japanese foreign policy, giving priority to U.S.-Japanese relations (which led to Japanese troop deployments in Iraq).

If the top three Asian powers do not aspire to lead, it is not surprising that Asia is silent on global challenges. To be fair, Asia has probably benefited the most from the prevailing world order. The U.N. Charter's rules on the use of force, the IMF rules on monetary stability, the WTO rules on level playing fields in trade laid the foundations for explosive Asian economic growth. So why not remain free riders?

Samuel Huntington, the famous Harvard don, may have inadvertently provided the answer. In "The Clash of Civilizations" he wrote that non-Western civilizations now "join the West as movers and shapers of history," not mere targets of colonization. He added, however, that the West "in effect is using international institutions, military power and economic resources to run the world in ways that will maintain Western predominance."

Huntington's observations explain the world's response to the financial crisis of 1997-98. …