Asia Carves out Own Ideas on Political Values with the Collapse of the Soviet Threat, Asian Nations Have Drawn Closer, Partially on the Basis of a New Anti-Westernism. A Political Debate Is on over Democracy and Human Rights, Which Some Regimes Label as Western Concepts. Economically Powerful Japan, Which Seeks to Take the Lead Politically, Is Sometimes Suspect among Asians for Supporting Some Western Views. A Four-Part Series Concludes Today. Series: CONTEST OVER ASIA. TODAY: POLITICS. Asians Assert Their Own Definitions of Human Rights and Democracy. Japan and the US Compete to Lead the Region. Part 4 of a 4-Part Series. First of 3 Articles Appearing Today
Clayton Jones, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
A POP song hit the charts in the Philippines last year that told volumes about Asia's current frame of mind. The song's title: "America Is Not The Only World."
The words, however, were in English and the music was American rock roll.
The irony of the message not fitting the medium revealed how difficult it is for many Asians to articulate ideas different from the West. But since the end of the cold war and Asia's emergence as an economic dynamo, a new confidence has developed in the region from Bali to South Korea to challenge the supposedly universal values of the United States and other Western countries.
The debate centers on the extent of democracy and human rights in each country. "Asians say they want to rediscover their roots and revitalize old values such as Confucianism or Islam, and make these more important than Western liberalism," says political science professor Chua Beng Huatt at the National University of Singapore.
"But in the meantime, they want to keep economic rationality and good ties with the West," he says.
The tension between economic goodwill with the West and political differences was very evident last month during the summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Seattle. Despite the coziness of the fireside chat at a wooden lodge and the summit's sole purpose of creating economic cooperation, President Clinton clashed openly with Chinese President Jiang Zemin over human rights problems in China.
Even the summit itself was seen as "un-Asian" because it was organized under a strong US initiative rather than the kind of slow consensus-building many Asians prefer. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad boycotted the meeting, in part to protest the US style.
Last May, Asian nations gathered in Bangkok to issue a definition of human rights that puts more emphasis on social stability and economic development than on individual freedoms. They hit back at Western "hypocrisy" on human rights.
That meeting forced Japan, a member of the Group of Seven most industrialized nations, to choose sides between East and West. Tokyo officials, in the end, decided to criticize the so-called "Bangkok declaration."
Since then, the US has gone on an intellectual counterattack against the Asian stance, and the consequences of that debate could have wide economic and security effects.
"Some have argued that democracy is somehow unsuited for Asia and that our emphasis on human rights is a mask for Western cultural imperialism. They could not be more wrong," US Secretary of State Warren Christopher told a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July. "The yearnings for freedom are not a Western export, they are a human instinct."
Mr. Christopher reminded Asians that human rights is a key issue in US ties with several countries in the region, especially Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. The US, for instance, is considering a "Radio Free Asia" modeled on the success of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
Malaysian leader Mahathir, the US's main opponent in the debate, has tried to set up an Asia-only group, excluding even Australia.
Still, the Clinton administration seems reluctant to link human rights rigidly to trade access to the US market. …