Last month, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the great American summer as well as an even more valuable insight into the American people’s visceral fear of Asia.
At a recent summer program I attended, I could not help but notice the multitude of lectures and discussions devoted to Asia, or in particular, China’s rise. There was heated discussions over whether China was a force for good, over China’s growing economic clout, and over whether China’s rise really did signal the death knell for American manufacturing. Listening in and contributing to all these debates as an interested foreigner, I struggled to understand why another viable alternative was not being considered; a world where America embraced Asia, and where Asia embraced America.
I was raised in the tiny city-state of Singapore, a city at the crossroads of East and West. I’m ethnically Chinese and grew up attending historically Chinese-medium schools. Yet my family background meant that English was the main language spoken at home; I spent the bulk of my teenage years immersing myself in Western broadsheets and newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the Economist. For me, the unique benefits of either culture were clear. All each side had to do was to embrace each other.
Often, many view Asia as a monolithic entity, a singular power seemingly dominated by China and India. Yet Asia is far more culturally and economically diverse; there are the booming economies of South and South-East Asia, the developed tiger economies of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and then the massive economies of China and India. With nearly half of the world’s population, successful tie-ups would allow American companies to access some of the world’s largest and most promising markets. The cheap goods coming out from the factory of the world are a gift to us all—even the “sandwiched” American middle class.
Conversely, America has much to offer Asia too. As the intellectual nerve centre of liberalism over the past century, the United States has stood as a beacon of hope to millions worldwide. Its world-renowned educational institutions have groomed many of Asia’s top politicians and statesmen; its ideals have shaped the institutions of many of its Asian allies. As in Western Europe, it was American trade and investment that sparked the economic miracles of the East, in Japan in the 1960s and then in the Tiger economies throughout the 1970s and 80s. These Asian success stories rode the wave of American capitalism to create some of the most affluent societies worldwide; the American economic order soon became the global economic order, much to the delight of the booming Asian middle class.
In an election cycle characterized by such immense pessimism and cynicism, both major candidates’ opposition or skepticism towards free trade, ranging from the Trans Pacific Partnership to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is definitely understandable. With trillions of dollars' worth of growth at stake, the citizens of America and Asia face a once-in-a-generation choice. Both could choose to wholeheartedly welcome the immense benefits of globalization and free trade, to usher in a new age of mutual understanding and prosperity. Or both could choose to turn their backs on the liberal world order and plunge the world into a degree of bipolarity not witnessed since the end of the Cold War. Only the former, I feel, will make the economies of East and West great (again).