Maria Monica Wihardja, Jakarta | Tue, 06/12/2012 10:38 AM

There is a Japanese saying: “The name speaks for itself”. This appears to be true in reflecting the current global economic and geopolitical landscape. Asia, meaning “sunrise” in Greek and “East” in Assyrian, is clearly rising, and its time has come to be dubbed as the “Asian Century”.

At the other end of the spectrum, the word Europe comes from the Phoenician word EROB, which means “where the sun sets”, reflecting the now crumbling Europe due to its economic meltdown. America’s Germanic origin means “ever-powerful in battle”, which aptly reflects the US as the omnipresent military might.

What will the Asian Century be like against the backdrop of the crumbling Europe and the US’ military might? Will the sun keep rising in the East? Or will the Asian Century, like a comet, disappear all too soon, never to return for a very long time? There are at least two ways to look at how the Asian Century will turn out: How Asia strengthens itself as a region and how Asia interacts with other powers within the global system.

Although power is not equal to strength, Asia’s strength will only come if there is a balance of power in the region. However, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding, confusion and mistrust, as well as uncertainty, among individual countries and in regards to the state of the region, which leads to a rivalry of power with one country trying to dominate the others instead of trying to find a balance.

Most recently, the Obama administration referred to a “pivot toward Asia”, which was revised to a “rebalancing toward Asia” in deference to the unease of some Asian countries. Unfortunately, as Hugh White from the Australian National University pointed out, there are many people in Washington who still believe that the reason behind the US’ decision to stay in the region is to dominate, not to balance.

Asia will need to develop new norms in this new Asian Century. On the one hand, the US wants to preserve its values in the region. The fact that the Chinese Vice President’s (the coming Chinese President’s) daughter, Xi Mingze (daughter of Xi Jinping), is currently being schooled at Harvard University is testimony to US soft power in continuing to influence the Asian Century’s new norms. On the other hand, China’s rise will certainly see new norms evolve, although these new norms will not, and should not, only be China’s. Despite the fact that during the recent National People’s Congress, which started on March 5, 2012, China’s outgoing prime minister Wen Jiabao said that democracy in China was inevitable, China may have its own interpretation of and way to implement democracy.

Middle-power countries should engineer new norms in Asia, especially in security practices. Middle-power countries do not want to be in a position where they have to make a choice: either China or the US. But most importantly, there has to be effective regional governance architecture in place to establish these new norms that would take into account all the countries in the region. The East Asia Summit (EAS) where economic, political and strategic issues are discussed, could be a potentially effective forum, or at least be preserved to be able to accommodate such discussions, to create a regional level playing field.

Economic integration within Asia is likely to become stronger, especially with the European banking and sovereign-debt crisis, which will impact the US sooner or later and is unlikely to end in the near future.

The global economy needs the region to gravitate. The Asian Century will also depend on how resilient Asia is to Europe’s economic woes. So far, at least, most Asian countries have been able to maneuver their fiscal and monetary policies to weather the crisis.

In spite of rosy economic predictions, domestic political evolution in the region will also prove to be a factor as to how the Asian Century economy will perform.

The next question is: How does Asia interact within the global system? This depends on which countries constitute Asia and who speaks for Asia. There are five Asian countries at the G20 table: China, Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia. However, there is no single, unified Asian voice. Asia has so far failed to coordinate.

Moreover, there is no clear way of how Asia relates the G20 to Asia’s existing regional architecture. Indonesia, as the only Southeast Asian country at ASEAN’s head table, has not yet fully extended its hand to reach out to its neighboring ASEAN countries, which is why its neighbors are either indifferent, jealous or opposing the G20.

Asian G20 countries should use the convoluted regional architecture, including the EAS and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), to improve the legitimacy of the G20 and Asia’s interaction within the global system. Meanwhile, South Asian countries should not hold economic integration hostage because of political conflicts, and East Asian countries should leave behind their historical mutual bitterness.

Most Asian G20 countries see the G20 as the best way to relate to the rest of the world and China sees it as the best way to reform global governance, away from the current model of a US-owned family business, to a shareholding model. If Asia could act collectively in a coordinated way to interact with the global system in the economic sector and beyond, it could certainly strengthen its voice in the global system and bring the Asian Century under its leadership.

In keeping with its name, Asia must rise and shine.

The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a lecturer at the University of Indonesia.