U.S. and Asia: Clash of Cultures

May 08, 1994|By ROBERT BENJAMIN

BEIJING — Beijing. -- America's frustrated in Asia these days.

The U.S. triumph in the Cold War in Europe has been quickly tempered by a wide range of trans-Pacific conflicts with newly self-confident Asian states increasingly willing to defy America's will.

Many in Asia believe that America's problems in the region are bound to multiply unless the country adopts a far less haughty approach as it moves into what has been dubbed the "Pacific Century."

"The crux of the problem is, you have a missionary, messianic zeal, which is not equal to the task of changing the world," Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father and senior minister, told The Sun in a recent interview. "Change has to be generated from within, not forced from outside."

William H. Overholt -- a former associate of futurist Herman Kahn and author of the "The Rise of China: How Economic Reform is Creating a New Superpower" -- is even more blunt: "There's a big element of pure insensitivity on the part of a rather provincial group in Washington today.

"The fundamental thing that's going on in Asia is that you have countries in the process of moving from impoverished dictatorships to prosperous, law-based societies, and many of our politicians insist that the only acceptable way is for them to undergo political reform first and economic reform later," said Mr. Overholt, a managing director of the Bankers Trust Co. in Hong Kong.

"But that development path has never worked. There's not one example in the entire history of the world of a Third World country succeeding along that path. And Asian countries, where things largely are working, are the only ones in the world that are standing up to us on this issue."

The rising East-West frictions contrast starkly with President Clinton's vow last fall to turn America's energies as never before toward Asia to form a new "Pacific community."

Increased U.S. engagement is largely sought by Asia, just as the U.S. military presence is generally welcome in the region. Many nations want the United States to play a balancing role there. But Asia also wants something of a partner, not a post-colonial overlord.

And the growing economic strength of many Asian nations -- along with the spreading perception in Asia that U.S. power has peaked -- have set the stage for a new assertiveness in the face of U.S. pressures:

* In China, U.S. attempts to use economic threats to induce human rights improvements are meeting stiff resistance. America's corporate giants have been won over to China's side, sending the Clinton administration into a frantic search for a way out of the dispute without the president's losing too much face.

* In Singapore, U.S. complaints over the sentencing to caning of an American teen-ager convicted of vandalism led last week to a degree of benevolence, a reduction in the number of cane strokes. The teenager Thursday was lashed four times, rather than his original sentence of six strokes. But first, Singapore sharply told the United States that it ought to clean up its own house before advising others how to handle crime, a lecture with which many Americans agreed.

* All across Asia, U.S. trade demands of Japan -- particularly the insistence on numerical targets as measures of American penetration of Japanese markets -- are prompting criticism. Asians now rebuke the United States rather than quietly accept being squeezed out of the Japanese market by U.S. targets for U.S. goods.

The East-West clashes have been frequent enough lately that some visualize a metaphorical fissure in the Pacific, a "fault line" separating Western and Asian, largely Confucian, civilizations.

By this logic, the United States and Asia are locked in a competition of political cultures that transcends the particulars of America's disputes with various Asian states.

At its simplest, this conflict boils down to a disagreement over what makes for a good society: individual rights or collective well-being.

In contrast to Western democracies' accent on civil liberties, the predominant Asian political model -- often called "neo-Confucian" "soft authoritarian" -- seeks social stability as the prerequisite for achieving the overriding goal of economic development. As many in the United States recently learned, neo-Confucians -- such as Mr. Lee, Singapore's guiding light -- disdain and fear the relative chaos of Western democracy. They see America's liberties as having led to social decay.

Moreover, the lower economic growth rates in Asia's most vibrant democracies, India and the Philippines, provide negative examples to buttress the economic side of the neo-Confucians' case for the benefits of more iron-handed rule.

In turn, the West has tended to view the arguments for authoritarianism -- whether relatively soft as in Singapore or more overtly repressive as in China -- as merely hollow excuses for the continued excesses of one-party rule.

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