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A people’s sexual revolution in China
Sunday, March 4, 2007
SHANGHAI: When Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue hit the newsstands last week in mainland China for the first time, with the sexy singer Beyoncé on the cover, the competition was fierce.
Readers here had already seen the February issue of For Him Magazine, which features a Chinese singer, A Duo, on its cover wearing a white V-neck leotard that reveals every other inch of her rather substantial figure.
Inside, A Duo poses like a dominatrix, clutching her breasts, wrapping her naked body in celluloid and bending, sweat-drenched, over a submissive man.
The racy For Him Magazine also offers tips on “how to do it in five minutes” (because a “sex break is the same as a coffee break”) and features stories with titles like “The Dangerous Sex Journey of QiQi.”
The images and text would hardly be shocking to North American or European readers. And the magazine’s photographs are tame compared with what appears in magazines in Japan and other parts of Asia, including the rest of China — Hong Kong and Macao.
But in mainland China, where sex is still a taboo subject and pornography is outlawed by the ruling Communist Party, the images are not only highly provocative, but also perhaps the latest sign that sex and sexuality are infiltrating the mainstream media.
And this powerful burst of sexual energy seems both a symbol of how rapidly the transformation of China is unfolding and, to some, a harbinger of the troubles ahead for a nation that will inevitably struggle to absorb its newfound freedoms. “There is a fine line between the open mind and sexual indulgence,” said Xie Xialing, a professor of sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Even five years ago, mainland books and magazines were banned from showing pictures of scantily clad models or publishing content that was deemed offensive or morally corrupt. The only sexual content to be found was in sex education pamphlets or books of nude Chinese women sold as “art works” at big city airports.
Today, however, with the Chinese economy booming and the government loosening its hold on the personal lives of everyday citizens, magazines are beginning to publish soft-core pornographic photographs, sexual fantasies and even clues about where to pick up call girls.
Popular mainland Web sites are going further, posting erotic videos and creating forums for women eager to market their sex appeal and post their photographs on the Internet: images of traveling with friends, undressing at home, even striking erotic poses.
“This is a kind of grass-roots sexual revolution,” said Annie Wang, author of “The People’s Republic of Desire,” a satirical novel about the mad race to modernization.
The government announces periodic crackdowns on pornography and often censors sexual content in magazines and on the Web. But since about 2000, the censors have started to look the other way. Political activism is still a no-no in New China. Entertainment is a different matter. Even the Web site of Xinhua, the official press agency, offers slide shows of the “10 Hottest Babes of 2006” and “Rarely Seen Photos of Sexy Men.”
Many say the trend is being driven by the market, and by entrepreneurs eager to cash in on the freer lifestyles on the mainland.
“The market is the No. 1 driving force behind the boom of such magazines,” said Pan Suiming, a professor of sociology at Renmin University in Beijing. Western luxury brands entering the mainland market want to advertise in popular magazines and on Web sites that draw consumers. And on the mainland right now, pictures of sex kittens draw.
For Him Magazine is one of the success stories of this genre, with a circulation of about 480,000. It probably helps that the magazine is published by a government agency, the National Tourism Administration, an indication of official interest in investing in the phenomenon.
Jacky Jin, the magazine’s editor in chief, said he wanted to affirm a new kind of lifestyle for readers that he calls the new mainland metrosexuals, guys who love cars, gadgets and girls.
“We’re opening a new window for Chinese men,” he said, noting that he has been criticized by government censors on several occasions.
A decade ago, the private lives of people on the mainland were still quite restricted. Whom you married, where you lived and what was considered permissible were tightly controlled or closely monitored by the government, employers and other authorities.
But urbanization, greater mobility and the power of the World Wide Web have challenged all that.
Now, experts say, the mainland is going through a period of enormous personal and sexual freedom. Young people — most of whom grew up without siblings under the one-child policy — are wearing more hip and provocative clothing. And they’re growing addicted to entertainment online, where they can also search for love and indulge their lust.
Pan said he thought one reason for the cultural change was a change in women’s attitudes.
“Women, especially young women in the cities, no longer think it’s a bad thing to expose their bodies,” he said. “Five or six years ago, when some women started to wear clothes that exposed their midriff, most people couldn’t understand why belly buttons should be regarded as beautiful and deserve public exposure. Today, young women think it is natural to bare their midriff.”
Zha Jianying, a Beijing writer and author of “China Pop,” said the growing openness was actually a good thing.
“This trend of being more open about sex is definitely healthy, coming after all those years of puritanism and Maoist suppression,” Zha said. “Now, maybe we’re seeing the pendulum swing in the other direction.”
But Xie at Fudan University said things had gone too far.
“In certain periods in history, such as the decadent Ming dynasty, sex was not a taboo and even intellectuals would talk about their sex skills casually over tea,” he said. “Today’s society is still better than that. But I do find that people care less about dignity.”
He went on to call for limits on how much skin can be shown publicly, and said: “Human beings should have a sense of shame.”
Other critics say the new freedoms have brought degeneracy, a boom in prostitution, and what Wang, the author, called “the concubine mentality.”
Hard-core pornography remains under assault by the government, which can exact heavy fines on trespassers. One pornography kingpin was recently sentenced to life in prison.
And the censors are wary of influences from the West, like the TV show “Sex and the City,” which has a huge following here, mostly on pirated DVDs.
Even “The Vagina Monologues” theater play was canceled in Shanghai recently, apparently because of the title.
But in a country that also happens to be the largest manufacturer of sex toys, being naughty is catching on.
In November a man in Shanghai was selling condoms in packages bearing the likeness of Chairman Mao.
His shop was closed for selling condoms in “inappropriate packages.”
January 6, 2005
By FRANCIS FUKUYAMA
From the January/February 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs.
Francis Fukuyama is a Professor of International Political
Economy at the Nitze School of Advanced International
Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of
State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
A key task facing the second Bush administration is
devising the proper security architecture for eastern Asia.
The United States is confronting several immediate
problems, including the North Korean nuclear standoff,
tension between China and Taiwan, and Islamist terrorism in
Southeast Asia. But a forward-looking foreign policy does
not simply manage crises; it shapes the context for future
policy choices through the creation of international
institutions. Eastern Asia has inherited a series of
alliances from the early days of the Cold War. These
partnerships remain important as a means of providing
predictability and deterrence. But a decade and a half
after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is increasingly
evident that they do not fit the configuration of politics
now taking shape.
The White House has an opportunity to create a visionary
institutional framework for the region. In the short term,
it can do so by turning the six-party talks on North Korea
into a permanent five-power organization that would meet
regularly to discuss various security issues in the region,
beyond the North Korean nuclear threat. In the long term,
Washington will need to consider ways of linking this
security dialogue to the various multilateral economic
forums now in existence or under consideration, such as the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); the
ASEAN-plus-three group, which was formed in the wake of the
Asian economic crisis and includes China, Japan, and South
Korea; and the developing free-trade areas. Asian
multilateralism will be critical not just for coordinating
the region’s booming economies, but also for damping down
the nationalist passions lurking beneath the surface of
every Asian country.
TIES THAT BIND
Unlike Europe, Asia lacks strong multilateral political
institutions. Europe has the EU and NATO, as well as groups
such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe (osce) and the Council of Europe. Asia’s only
counterparts are ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum on
security matters, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
forum (APEC)–all of which are far weaker organizations.
ASEAN does not include China or the other major players in
Northeast Asia, and APEC is no more than a consultative
body. Asian security is ensured not by multilateral
treaties, but by a series of bilateral relationships
centering on Washington, in particular the U.S.-Japan
Security Treaty and the U.S.-South Korean relationship.
The reasons for this difference between Europe and Asia lie
in history: European countries are linked by similar
cultural origins and their shared experience in the
twentieth century, to the point that they have been
relinquishing important elements of national sovereignty to
the EU. By contrast, there is a much higher degree of
distrust among the major players in Asia. This suspicion is
driven partly by a changing power balance, as Japan is
eclipsed by China, but primarily by memories of the Pacific
war. After 1945, both Germany and Japan needed to convince
their neighbors that they were no longer threats. The new
West Germany did so by ceding sovereignty to a series of
multilateral organizations; Japan did so by ceding
sovereignty in security affairs to the United States.
Security ties thus took on a hub-and-spoke structure in
Asia, with Washington playing a central mediating and
These bilateral ties remain crucial, particularly the
U.S.-Japanese relationship. The U.S. nuclear guarantee and
U.S. forces stationed in Japan reassure the rest of Asia
that Japan will not rearm in a major way. But this Cold War
system of security checks and balances is eroding as new
generations take power and face changing environments.
The first problem concerns the United States’ relationship
with South Korea. With the ascendancy of left-wing
Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun over the past
decade, a new generation of Koreans has grown up seeking
reconciliation rather than confrontation with North Korea.
Many young South Koreans today regard the United States as
a greater threat to their security than the regime of Kim
Jong Il. This bizarre perception is based on extraordinary
illusions. The North Korean dictatorship is one of the most
inhumane and dangerous that has ever existed, but the Bush
administration misplayed its hand at the beginning of its
first term by undercutting President Kim Dae Jung’s
“sunshine” policy of Korean reconciliation–triggering a
generational revolt among younger South Koreans against
Cold War verities. The reflexive gratitude that South
Koreans who lived through the war against the North feel
toward the United States is simply absent among the younger
generation, which, like its German counterpart, grew up in
peace and prosperity.
On the surface, the U.S.-South Korean alliance still looks
strong: the current Roh Moo Hyun government has sought to
demonstrate its commitment to the relationship by sending
military forces to Iraq. But misunderstanding could easily
emerge and then spiral as Koreans blame the United States
for excessive belligerence toward Pyongyang and the United
States reacts to what it perceives as South Korean
ingratitude. Preoccupied with terrorism and the Middle
East, Washington has already repositioned its forces away
from the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas and is
planning to draw down its forces in the region.
The United States’ relationship with Japan is also changing
in ways that are extremely unsettling to the rest of Asia.
Prompted by the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, Tokyo is
reconsidering the need for more robust defensive forces.
Japan’s dispatch of peacekeepers to Iraq and its recent
confrontations with the North Korean navy demonstrate a
willingness to behave like what opposition leader Ichiro
Ozawa has called a “normal country.” There is a growing
consensus in Japan that Article 9 of its postwar
constitution–which dictates that it cannot wage war and
cannot maintain armed forces–should be revised, even if
the process stretches out over a number of years. Although
political ties between Washington and Tokyo are stronger
today than they have been in many years, the Cold War
father-child dependency will inevitably be replaced by
something resembling an alliance of equals.
Japan’s new posture is to be welcomed. In fact, the United
States has been pushing Tokyo to embrace such a new role
since the last decade of the Cold War. It is perverse that
a country with the world’s third-largest economy remains
militarily and psychologically dependent on Washington. But
the rest of Asia–particularly China and the two Koreas,
which were heavily victimized by Japan throughout the first
half of the twentieth century–prefers that Japan stay
militarily weak. These countries will not welcome the
emergence of a stronger and more independent neighbor.
Although a Japan with a revised Article 9 should not
threaten the rest of Asia, its former victims may not trust
in that fact. Japanese rearmament must therefore progress
slowly and be managed delicately, with plenty of open
communication between Tokyo and other Asian governments.
And then there is China. The world’s fastest-growing
economy (and one of its largest) has thus far remained
largely outside any security pact or alliance, excepting
its membership in global institutions such as the UN and
the World Trade Organization (WTO). But this relative
isolation also is likely to change. In recent years, the
Chinese have proposed a blizzard of new Asian multilateral
economic arrangements, which could ultimately serve
security purposes as well. Beijing’s plans have included
two agreements with ASEAN (ASEAN plus one and ASEAN plus
three, with Japan and North Korea), as well as China-ASEAN
and East Asian free-trade areas. Clearly, the Chinese are
exerting leadership to ensure that their status in the
international political arena matches their growing
economic power. Sensing a geoeconomic threat, the Japanese
have responded with their own trade pacts, such as the
Japan-Singapore free-trade area negotiated by Prime
Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
China has always presented a great conundrum for the United
States. It is the kind of power Washington deals with the
least well: a nation that is neither clearly friend nor
clearly foe, simultaneously a strategic threat and a
critical trade and investment partner. The result has been
an inconsistent relationship of pragmatic cooperation
punctuated by periodic crises, such as the U.S. bombing of
the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the Chinese
downing of a U.S. spy plane in 2001. The future of this
relationship depends on how Chinese politics evolve:
whether China provokes a showdown with Taiwan and uses its
economic might to achieve Asian hegemony, or develops into
an increasingly pluralistic society in which economic
interests dictate continuing good relations with its
In the meantime, the United States can adopt one of two
approaches: either it can seek to isolate China and
mobilize the rest of Asia into a coalition to contain
growing Chinese power, or it can try to incorporate China
into a series of international institutions designed to
channel Chinese ambitions and elicit cooperation.
Despite its appeal among U.S. conservatives, isolating
Beijing is a nonstarter. Even if the United States somehow
knew that China were a long-term strategic threat on a par
with the former Soviet Union, no U.S. ally would enlist in
an anti-Chinese coalition any time in the near future.
Japan, South Korea, Australia, and ASEAN members all have
complex relationships with China that involve varying
degrees of cooperation and conflict; absent overt Chinese
aggression, none is going to be willing to jeopardize those
Incorporating China into existing global institutions has
already proved very effective. In 2001, when the question
of Chinese membership in the WTO came up, some argued that
China would only subvert the WTO by breaking its rules. As
it is, being a part of the WTO has promoted the rule of law
by giving Chinese reformers an excuse to make systemic
domestic changes. These modifications–which were in
China’s self-interest anyway–include replacing the
traditional system of corrupt, nepotistic business dealings
with more transparent and open rules. As Evan Medeiros and
Taylor Fravel have pointed out, over the past decade China
has shifted its posture from that of an aggrieved victim of
Western imperialism to that of an increasingly responsible
member of the international community.
THE MULTILATERAL IMPERATIVE
Asia needs to develop a new
set of multilateral organizations in parallel with the
existing bilateral organizations. Over time, a new set of
institutions can take over many of the functions performed
by bilateral agreements. But this new multilateralism
cannot come into being without the strong support of the
United States, which is why a creative re-evaluation of
Asia must be a top priority for George W. Bush in his
Washington clearly derives some benefits from the present
system of U.S.-centric bilateral alliances. The United
States gains unique sanction for its military and political
presence in the region and is in a strong position to
prevent the emergence of hostile coalitions. Washington
also often serves as the conduit for messages and security
plans sent from one Asian capital to another, giving it
Balanced against these considerations is a simple but
strong reason for promoting a multilateral system. With the
end of the Cold War and the continuing economic development
of eastern Asia, power relationships are changing in ways
that have unlocked nationalist passions and rivalries. The
potential for misunderstanding and conflict among South
Korea, Japan, and China will be significant in the coming
years–but it can be mitigated if multiple avenues of
discussion exist between the states.
Several recent incidents have brought latent tensions to
the surface. Despite burgeoning trade between China and
South Korea, relations recently became strained when
government-sponsored Chinese researchers asserted that the
ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which 2,000 years ago stretched
along the current China-North Korea border, was once under
Chinese control. The ensuing fight had to be papered over
with a five-point accord negotiated by the countries’
foreign ministries. Beijing’s motives for allowing
publication of the article are unclear, but they may have
been related to rising nationalism in China and loose talk
in Seoul about founding a “greater Korea” that would
include not just the North and the South but also the more
than 2 million ethnic Koreans currently living in
Meanwhile, the growing economic interdependence of China
and Japan has not mitigated nationalist passions, but
exacerbated them. At an Asian Cup soccer game in August
2004 in Beijing, Chinese fans screamed, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”
at the winning Japanese team, forcing it to flee China.
This event followed on the heels of several other ugly and
apparently spontaneous displays of anti-Japanese feeling
and outrage over the use of hired female “companions” in
southern China by 300 Japanese businessmen.
Heightening security concerns threaten the Japanese-South
Korean relationship and could spark an arms race. Ten years
ago, while doing research in Tokyo, I was told by a number
of officers in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces that in the
event of Korean unification, the combined military of North
and South Korea would be close to ten times the size of
Japan’s. If Korean troop strength did not fall dramatically
at that point, they said, Japan would have to take
appropriate defensive measures. Not only does this risk
remain, but today there is the added factor of North
Korea’s nuclear weapons–and what a potentially united
Korea would do with them. In a recent Tokyo Shimbun poll,
83 of 724 members of the Japanese Diet said publicly that
Japan should consider becoming a nuclear power in light of
the North Korean threat, an assertion that would have been
unthinkable just a few years ago.
Asia is not about to descend into a downward spiral of
nationalist fervor, but the potential for dangerous
miscommunication clearly exists. Establishing a
multilateral structure would help greatly by giving
Northeast Asia’s major powers a forum for talking directly
to one another. Nato, with its regular schedule of
ministerial meetings, has performed this service in Europe
for several decades. Defense ministers lay out their
spending plans and force structures, and foreign ministers
explain their respective nation’s political actions. If the
Chinese and Korean governments are worried about the
meaning of Japanese rearmament, or if the Japanese and
Chinese leaderships are concerned about Korea’s
postunification intentions, a multilateral forum would give
them an opportunity to defuse anxieties and articulate
The U.S. stance on multilateralism in Asia has been erratic
and contradictory. The United States sponsored
organizations such as the Southeast Asian Treaty
Organization and APEC. But when Malaysian Prime Minister
Mahathir bin Mohamad sought to counter APEC in 1989 with a
proposal for an East Asian Economic Caucus that would
exclude the United States, it was firmly rejected by
Washington as a scheme to keep “white” powers out of the
Asian club. During the early 1990s, the Clinton
administration promoted an informal Northeast Asia
Cooperation Dialogue between the countries that are now
participating in the six-party talks. This process
continues today, but it has never been elevated to a formal
Many of the more recent proposals for eastern Asian
multilateral institutions have focused on economic issues
stemming from the 1997-98 financial crisis. In the view of
many eastern Asian countries, the United States and
U.S.-influenced international institutions such as the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank
exploited the crisis to push a pro-market agenda on Asia.
When Japan proposed an Asian IMF in 1999, Washington
summarily rejected the idea but offered nothing in its
place to act as an institutional coordinating mechanism
capable of mitigating a future crisis. As a result, nations
in the region have been building new multilateral
organizations on their own. These include the Chiang Mai
Initiative, which allows the central banks from 13
countries to swap reserves in the event of a speculative
attack, and the ASEAN-plus-three forum. So far, the United
States has either ignored or been indifferent to these
In an ironic twist, however, Washington has stumbled into a
new Asian multilateral framework: the ongoing six-party
talks on Korean security and nuclear weapons involving the
United States, North and South Korea, Japan, China, and
Russia. Washington embraced this arrangement after
Pyongyang, in the wake of the collapse of the 1994 Agreed
Framework, insisted on talking directly to the Americans
about the future of its nuclear programs. U.S. policymakers
correctly saw this as an effort to divide the United States
from its South Korean ally and insisted on multilateral
talks instead. Over time, another important motive emerged:
only China had the economic leverage to bring North Korea
to the bargaining table. Indeed, Beijing strong-armed
Pyongyang into accepting the six-party format by briefly
cutting off its energy supplies.
The multilateral security framework that has unexpectedly
emerged in Northeast Asia provides an excellent opportunity
for institutional innovation. If and when the immediate
crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program passes, a
permanent five-power organization could serve as a direct
channel for communication between China, Japan, South
Korea, Russia, and the United States. The new group would
not be a NATO-like military alliance, but would instead
resemble the OSCE–with 55 member states, the world’s
largest regional security organization–and deal with
second-order security issues.
PARTY OF FIVE
A five-power forum would be particularly useful in dealing
with several foreseeable problems. The first is a sudden
collapse of the North Korean regime. In the short run, such
an implosion would cause huge difficulties: coordinating
relief efforts, dealing with refugees, paying for
reconstruction, and containing any violence that might
ensue. Over the long run, the political deck in Northeast
Asia would be reshuffled: the rationale for the U.S.-South
Korean alliance would disappear, and tensions between a
unified Korea and Japan and China could rise for reasons
already indicated–all of which would be easier to tackle
in a pre-existing multilateral setting.
Another issue is Japanese rearmament. Japan will not revise
Article 9 this year or the next, but the handwriting is on
the wall. Although rearmament should not threaten China and
Korea, they will have many incentives to hype a new
Japanese threat; China, in particular, has used
anti-Japanese sentiment to bolster the communist regime’s
nationalist credentials. Germany, which rearmed and has
been moving down a similar path toward “normalcy,”
moderated the threat by encasing its sovereignty in several
international institutions, including NATO, the EU, and the
UN. A Japanese return to normality will seem much less
threatening if done within a regional security organization
as well as a continuing bilateral relationship with the
United States. But the new group’s relevance wouldn’t stop
there. A fully nuclear North Korea, a possible Asian arms
race, the implications of Chinese military
modernization–these are just a few of the potential
problems a five-power body could tackle.
At the same time, such a permanent forum would not be an
appropriate venue for other important matters. It would not
help deter a Chinese threat to Taiwan, though it could
conceivably provide a forum for resolving a crisis in the
Taiwan Strait. Nor would the five-power organization be
able to directly influence security problems in Southeast
Asia. Whether it may one day do so by admitting more
members is a question for the future.
There will be substantial practical obstacles to
transforming the current six-party talks into a permanent
organization. To start, hard-liners in the United States
will immediately object that the six-party format has
already proved ineffective: after three rounds of meetings
in August 2003, February 2004, and June 2004, the
negotiations seem to be going nowhere. In fact, the North
Koreans used the first meeting to announce their intention
to test a nuclear weapon, and they have generally thumbed
their noses at U.S. efforts to constrain their nuclear
program. Washington hoped to use the multilateral approach
to isolate Pyongyang; instead, the North Koreans have
turned the tables on the Americans and lined up support
from China and South Korea for a more accommodating line.
Given this track record, and Chinese ambivalence toward the
North Korean threat, why make this particular format
The answer is that the United States needs allies–the same
reason the six-party talks came into existence in the first
place. Those who are hawkish on North Korea seem to think
that once the diplomatic track has played itself out,
Washington can use the threat of force to pressure
Pyongyang to back down. Although military options at this
point seem off the table even for the hawks, hope remains
that the United States can somehow bring about North Korean
regime change by means other than war; unilaterally impose
a tough embargo that will keep nuclear materials bottled up
and increase pressure on the North; or frighten the Chinese
and the South Koreans into cooperating on a more
By itself, however, the United States does not have
sufficient leverage to implement any of these strategies.
Alone, Washington cannot force the North to back away from
its nuclear program or cajole Beijing and Seoul into an
anti-North Korea alliance, given their domestic policy
preferences. The current multilateral negotiations, for all
their limitations, remain the best U.S. option. The Bush
administration hard-liners began talks with the assumption
that no negotiated solution could work, given the failure
of the 1994 Agreed Framework, and therefore have never
sought to define a realistic new deal. Perhaps if the White
House does this during Bush’s second term, Pyongyang,
rather than Washington, will become the isolated power.
The second major obstacle to creating a permanent
five-power organization is North Korea itself, which does
not belong in any responsible community of nations, given
its human rights and security record. Pressing ahead too
rapidly to convert narrowly focused six-party negotiations
into a permanent five-power organization could undermine
the current talks and lead to North Korean obstructionism
on all fronts. The trick will be to isolate Pyongyang
within the six-party format while making the other five
powers comfortable with the prospect of working together
over the long term. North Korea’s current refusal to return
to the talks may even present an occasion for a five-power
meeting without Pyongyang. The larger goal aside, this
strategy is something Washington should work toward to
increase the pressure on Pyongyang. Eventually, the United
States may be able to put new issues on the table for the
five powers to discuss.
If the transition to a permanent five-power structure can
somehow be made, other issues will have to be addressed as
well. Should other countries in the region, such as India,
New Zealand, Australia, or any of the ASEAN members, be
added? Should there be an official link between the new
group and the ASEAN Regional Forum, or should individual
ASEAN states be considered for membership?
Finally, there is the question of how a security forum of
five powers or more would relate to the Asian multilateral
economic groups already taking shape or being proposed,
such as the Chiang Mai Initiative or ASEAN plus three.
Should the United States support regional economic
integration even if it does not have a seat at the table,
as it has supported the EU? Or should Washington regard
economic multilateralism as a threat and weaken these
initiatives in favor of global organizations such as the
Bretton Woods institutions or the WTO?
Whether the United States likes it or not, the countries of
eastern Asia have a strong incentive to increase their
formal multilateral economic cooperation: global
institutions such as the IMF are distrusted as overly
dominated by the United States and unresponsive to Asian
concerns. Washington would better serve its interests by
supporting and shaping the evolution of these institutions
from the outside, rather than by playing an obstructionist
role. The United States can cement its formal role in
eastern Asia by maintaining its network of bilateral
alliances and by working toward a new multilateral security
organization. Ultimately, Washington’s relationship with
Asian multilateral organizations would mirror the
relationships it has with the EU and NATO–dealing with one
from the outside and the other from the inside. Whatever
multilateral institutions take shape in Asia will never
achieve the strength and cohesion of their European
counterparts, but the United States should regard them as
hedges against the possible unraveling of the existing
bilateral security system.
The final and perhaps most urgent reason for the Bush
administration to re-envision its approach to Asian
diplomacy has as much to do with the United States’ status
in the world as with its standing in eastern Asia. The Iraq
war has isolated Washington in unprecedented ways and
convinced a large part of the world that the United
States–not Islamist terrorism–is the biggest threat to
To climb out of this hole, the White House needs to start
thinking creatively about legitimacy and international
organizations. Considering that it has already snubbed the
UN and refused to participate in the International Criminal
Court or the Kyoto Protocol, Washington must now consider
alternatives to international cooperation that better suit
its interests. The United States will be better served by
endorsing a series of overlapping and occasionally
competitive multilateral organizations than by putting all
its eggs in a single basket such as the UN. A permanent
five-power organization in eastern Asia would help provide
the foundation for the new order in that region–a small
building block in a larger multi-multilateral edifice.
The idea of permanently institutionalizing the six-party
talks has been discussed with increasing frequency in
Washington policy circles in recent months. Such an
organization will not come about, however, unless President
George W. Bush decides to take the initiative to make it
happen. The advent of a new term for Bush and his
administration provides a fortuitous opportunity to
reconceive the United States’ long-term political
architectures. Being the sole superpower bestows a certain
responsibility for the global public good. It means not
just exercising hard military power against rogue states,
but also shaping the international environment in
anticipation of new political demands. The United States
stepped up to this challenge after 1945; it should do so
again in the post-September 11 world.