Senior Seminar Charts Changing Power in Asia Pacific, Calls for Greater U.S. Attention

HONOLULU (Aug. 10) -- Twenty-eight serving and retired officials, academics, experts, and business leaders attending the East-West Center's eighth annual Senior Policy Seminar August 5-8 assessed trends and shifts in the distribution of military, economic and so-called "soft" power in the Asia Pacific region.  

The Seminar, held under the "Chatham House Rule" of non-attribution, identified major changes taking place in all three areas, but also concluded that the central cause of these changes is the growing strength of several regional states. China heads the list but India and other states were also mentioned. According to the participants, the result of the changes is a more even distribution of power rather than a decline in previously dominant American power.  However, the group cautioned that if Washington continues to pay relatively little high-level attention to Asia the United States may not play a significant role in shaping the nature and institutions of the new evolving Asian community.

Among the other significant points made during the three days of discussion were:  


Relations among the major regional powers are generally positive, and no significant regional power is fundamentally dissatisfied with the status quo.  Flash-point issues (e.g., North Korean nuclear weapons, China-Taiwan, India-Pakistan) are being managed successfully at this time.  The response of regional governments to changes in the distribution of power is best described as efforts at "engagement" and multiple "partnerships" rather than narrower "hedging" or traditional alliance strategies.

The United States is still generally regarded as "the one you call" in the event of a serious emergency requiring material assistance, as demonstrated after the Sumatra tsunami in 2004.  The major problem for the United States in the region is that its global role produces competing demands in other regions (especially now Iraq and Middle East), which is complicated by memories in the region of earlier American inattention such as its failure to respond quickly to Asia's 1997 financial crisis.

New regional security forums are emerging, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Asian Summit meetings.  While these are not yet able to deal with the most critical issues, over time (and with or without active U.S. participation) they will become stronger and develop their own "rules of the game" to manage challenges.  


Rising levels and greater dispersion of prosperity around the region, including shifts toward consumption and domestic investment as drivers of growth, could have a stabilizing impact over the long term.  However, at the moment interdependence is increasing far more rapidly than the development of institutions that could help manage disruptions such as volatile financial flows. This increases the vulnerability of all the region's economies to crises in others.

Managing economic problems is made more difficult because leaders and political systems tend to respond to short-term interests (such as the benefits of undervalued currencies or the protection of business and labor interests threatened by foreign competition) rather than the requirements of building a stable and mutually beneficial world system for the longer run.  For the United States, campaign rhetoric such as calls for scrapping trade agreements or proposals to impose new tariffs on Chinese imports to compensate for currency undervaluation is heard in the region as signaling a possible U.S. retreat from its traditional support for market liberalization.  At a minimum this will create problems in the next administration's relations with Asia.

The institutional structure of the Asia Pacific multilateral economic order is still in flux. On trade, bilateral Free Trade Agreements are filling the gap left by lack of progress on multilateral and global negotiations (especially the Doha Round).  However, there are serious questions whether bilateral arrangements are an adequate alternative, as indicated by evidence that many private businesses regard the benefits of these arrangements as not worth the trouble of the bureaucratic requirements involved.

Resource issues such as energy and water could overshadow the rest of the economic picture.  Responses to these issues are necessarily multilateral, but are badly lagging.

"Soft Power"

This concept eludes precise definition. Yet intangible factors such as prestige, aura, charisma, reputation, and status clearly do play a role in the way nations perceive each other and thus in the ability of nations to attract support and imitation from others without having to directly entice or compel such behavior.

Soft power is ultimately an attribute of a society rather than a government.  But governments often try to use soft power assets to advance state objectives.  The U.S. government seeks to reinforce its international stature and influence by showcasing U.S. dynamism and values (via the Peace Corps, exchanges, etc.).  China is using soft power instruments to reduce suspicions over the way China will use its growing power and to spread Chinese cultural influence – examples being "smile diplomacy" and the establishment of Confucius Institutes around the globe.  Many smaller states seek to increase their visibility and positive image through promoting national "brand identity."  

Use of soft power as a policy instrument requires careful management; it can be ephemeral and can even backfire, fueling perceptions of opportunism, insincerity and manipulation.  U.S. soft power has been to a degree squandered by its widely criticized intervention in Iraq.  And in many parts of Asia there remains distrust of China's ultimate goals and impact in the region.


For more information regarding the Senior Policy Seminar please contact Richard Baker, special assistant to the president of the East-West Center, at +(808) 944-7371 or via email at

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