Day 5 at the SSWA: Asia

Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama

To wrap up the week, the Summer Seminar students welcomed Dennis Unkovic, Esq., an international lawyer who is an expert on Asia. Today he discussed the continent’s history, its current risks and US interests in the region. During his talk, he invited a lot of participation from students, saying that his role was to help them connect the ideas from information that they already know.

He began by dividing Asia’s history up into three periods. First, from 1545 to 1945, Asia was dominated by colonial powers. The terrible treatment Asian nations received at the hands of the imperialists left a lasting impression that continues to underlie current relations with the West. Meanwhile, in reaction to imperialism, Japan entered a period of sustained isolationism. Japan was also important for the role it played in World War II, since the US joined the war after Pearl Harbor.

The second period from 1945 to 1980 saw the success of Japan as it rebuilt its economy after the end of the war. The government led this process, deciding which industries to fund, a process which was repeated to much success in other Asian countries later. The US also experienced declining influence on the continent, especially after the Vietnam War and economic recession of the 70s.

Finally, since 1980, the economies of Korea, the Asian Tigers (Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia) and especially China have experienced dramatic growth.India also followed this path, albeit somewhat later.

Should the US be worried that the Chinese economy is set to become the largest in the world by 2022? A chorus of ‘yes’ came from the students, but Mr. Unkovic said no. For one thing, there are approximately five times as many Chinese as there are Americans, so even if the two countries’ GDPs are equal, Americans will be five times better off since that money doesn’t have to be distributed among as many people. Also, even though the US’s percentage of global wealth will decrease, that doesn’t necessarily imply an absolute decline in wealth if the overall “pie” is getting bigger.

Next, the speaker outlined a number of the principal challenges in Asia. First is population. On one hand, Japan has the oldest population of the world and a negative growth rate. Meanwhile, other countries are struggling to keep economic growth at pace with booming population growth. Second, countries are looking to satisfy their needs for natural resources. Third, many are concerned with the growing Chinese military. Fourth, there is an unequal distribution of wealth in many countries, for example between China’s coastal and inland areas. Fifth, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities present security concerns, especially in the hands of Kim Jong Il. Finally, Japan in is bad shape after this year’s tsunami.

Finally, the group brainstormed a list of US interests in Asia. Among these were: China’s militarism, manufacturing jobs being outsourced, nuclear concerns regarding North Korea, US debt to China, the value of the dollar vis a vis the Chinese renminbi, and security concerns in Pakistan.

After that, they broke off into groups for the final scenario. Students were asked to advise President Obama on a number of issues regarding Taiwan, China and North Korea. First of all, should the US company Boeing sell a missile defense system to Taiwan? Second, should Congress pass legislation issuing sanctions on China because of intellectual property rights violations? Third, should the US put aircraft carriers in the strait between Taiwan and China if China carries out full-scale naval maneuvers there? Fourth, what should the US do about Taiwan seeking out oil supplies? Finally, what should be done about North Korea?

When the groups presented their policy proposals, they were met with many questions from Mr. Unkovic and the audience. In particular, the speaker hoped that they would take a multi-dimensional approach to these issues, and consider a lot of possibilities. What should be the US’s first course of action? If that does not work, what should it do instead?

After that, the students were presented their certificates for completing the Summer Seminar on World Affairs. Overall the week was a great success, filled with many informational presentations, thoughtful discussions and insightful proposals, and not to mention a lot of fun.

By Rebecca Somple, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern