American graffiti rules

August 16, 1996

The United States' political and military presence in Asia and the Pacific assumed massive proportions after the second world war. General Douglas MacArthur ruled Japan like a viceroy until he disagreed with President Truman over strategy in Korea. For a while, US policy sought to contain communism, although in the end success was limited and problematical. What followed was a new doctrine attributed to President Eisenhower, and known as the "domino theory".

The period of the "domino theory" lasted from about 1954-74. The notion was that Asian states would topple like dominoes before the advance of communist armies until communism became triumphant. During this period there were many communist states in the region, all seeking the removal of the US and its allies. These included China, North Korea, North Vietnam and the former Indo-China. President Kennedy promised in 1960 that he would bear any burden and pay any price to frustrate the onward march of communism in Asia. What followed was the disaster of Vietnam.

President Nixon travelled to Beijing in 1972 to make his peace with Mao Zedong and then to jettison Taiwan. The US had made its agonising reappraisal. Today there are no longer heady military theories about the US role in Asia. There is only a residual, somewhat incoherent sense of superpower status combined with a vague notion of America's national interest.

The US has three options: it can act as a policeman as it did unsuccessfully in Vietnam. It can do nothing, as it increasingly chooses to do, or it can engage in a piecemeal response, as it did most recently, in the case of threats from the Chinese over elections in Taiwan. In the last case, there is a strong lobby in the US which seeks to help Taiwan against the mainland.

Recent trends suggest that the US will follow the path of caution despite rightwing calls for firm action in defence of conservative values and military strength. Nevertheless, the US still maintains bases in parts of Asia, some 30,000 servicemen in South Korea and some 20,000 in Okinawa. The latter base has caused much turmoil after a well-publicised case in which three American servicemen were alleged to have raped a Japanese schoolgirl. In retrospect the so-called "domino theory" has given way to a view that the US simply has to stand its ground in the region. There are no more grand causes to be fought in a region which has cast out ideology, and where even the Chinese rush towards capitalist practices in the pursuit of profit. The domino concept may have worked after all, in that Asia has fallen, not towards the embrace of Marxism-Leninism, but rather towards money-making. In the US itself, Paul Kennedy's thesis The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers regarding the idea of "imperial overstretch" has become popular and in 1992, the US elected a president who had ensured that he avoided the Vietnam draft during his years at Oxford during the 1960s.

For most Americans Asia is now a place of economic opportunity. By a similar token, Asians see the US as a market. In 1960, Asia produced 7.8 per cent of the world's gross domestic product. By 2000, this figure could be up to 25 per cent. In 1960 too, the US's main market was Europe. By 1983, this had dropped to 22 per cent of its market, and by the year 2000 this figure will have dropped still further to 15 per cent. The US has a well-publicised trade imbalance with numerous Asian states, in particular Japan.

Sadly for the US the cumulative effect of all these imports has been to create a truly worrying and seemingly ineradicable debt problem. The US electorate is more aware of the problem and protectionist politicians have revived a Fortress America mentality. Added to these problems is the concern about intellectual property rights. To put it crudely, American know-how is being tapped, without payment or permission by factories, firms and entrepreneurs in several Asian countries. Governments, if not actually involved in the theft of intellectual property, frequently turn a blind eye to the practice.

The US still seems to accept that it has a security role in Asia. Little is contributed to the defence of the region by its countries. Japan, for example, appears to have perfected a technique developed during the Gulf war. This consists of keeping out of the actual conflict but throwing in a small donation.

Paul Kennedy believed that the "laws" of history spelt a decline for the more significant powers and he referred to the United Kingdom whose military needs in keeping a huge empire impoverished the British, at least in relative terms. The US may also have to follow the path of decline.

In 1945, the US had 40 per cent of the world's wealth. By 1990, only 16 per cent. By the year 2000, it will be no more than 12 per cent.

It may well be very true, as the old adage has it, that merchant states prosper, while warrior states decline. Yet it would be premature to write off the US as a superpower in decline. It still has enormous reserves of strength and resilience. It is not declining as fast or as far as the pessimists proclaim. Nevertheless, growth rates in China and in the little Asian dragons are triple those of the US and of Western Europe.

If the US no longer has the crusading zeal of the 1960s, it is making an enormous impression on the young people of many Asian countries. A fundamental shift towards American culture has taken place, which is probably irrevocable, despite the misgivings of the older generation. Of course, in language, pop culture, technology and the McDonald mentality American forms have taken hold. The British visitor soon realises that Asian English is increasingly North American English. To turn on the television in a number of Asian countries is to hear the presenter speak of "skedules", "parking-lots", "trucks", "meeting with", and the ubiquitous "bottom-line". North American stories feature prominently whether of Manhattan or Two Forks, Arizona. The natural currency of the region is the US dollar. A journal like Asiaweek, initially written according to English spelling and with a relaxed attitude to differences in currencies, peremptorily informed its readers that it was to develop a house-style based on the North-American idiom with the US dollar as the only form used.

Even in Hong Kong the British influence is rapidly disappearing. Some people see this as a new form of cultural imperialism, and in traditionalist-minded states like Malaysia there is hostility in official quarters, as the threat to Islam is both resented and monitored. In China there is a suspicion that influences from the US are bourgeois and corrupting. Taiwan and the Philippines, by contrast, have embraced Americana for decades. In Hong Kong, some colleges have virtually all US-trained staff.

There is a more subtle way in which American ways affect the young in Asia. It was noted by De Tocqueville in his seminal account of early American life in the 1840s. The US defined its democracy in terms of equality given the absence of an established European-style aristocracy. People were to be judged by their abilities not their rank. In modern Asia this message comes across as a form of opposition to traditional rulers and to Confucian traditions. In Singapore the message is rejected by the republic's leaders who, by attempting to counter it, have stressed so-called Asian "values".

Both Japan and the US have learned a salutary lesson. An attempt to use military means to impose a lifestyle is not likely to succeed. After losing the second world war, Japan turned to economic conquest. And the US, after its Vietnam debacle, resorted to the spheres of culture and language. The pen is mightier than the sword, but so are the blandishments of American English, and music.

Peter Harris is emeritus professor of politics, University of Hong Kong.

and the humiliation of US forces in 1974

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