Governments and the media need to wake up to the fact that east Asia can increasingly look after itself and doesn’t need or want western help
The mood music has changed. David Miliband has fallen silent. The railing of John Humphrys on the Today programme has subsided. The agenda has changed. A week ago it was all blood and thunder, western righteousness and the imperative of some kind of military action.
Then suddenly, on Monday, the penny finally dropped and the bubble of bluster burst. The idea of helicopters from assorted western warships moored off the southern coast of Myanmar (Burma to the Foreign Office and the British media, but few others in the world) dropping aid from a great height over the Irrawaddy delta – dismissed by aid organisations as counter-productive and even dangerous to the local population – died a quiet death.
The suggestion that western boats, launched from the same warships, might make their way up the delta was quietly shelved, as was the proposal that western aid might be taken south from Yangon (Rangoon to the British imperial spirit) in convoys protected by western troops. The default mode of the western world – when all else seems to be failing then use military force – was consigned to the recycle bin. Welcome to the new international order.
The simple point that our wannabe imperialists took a while to understand is that the western writ no longer holds in east Asia. You might think that with all the publicity that has accompanied the rise of the tigers and, above all, China, this might have already been understood.
Alas, no. In Miliband’s interview with BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight last week, he failed to mention even once the potential role of the Asian countries in channelling aid into Myanmar. His contribution was utterly western-centric, as if the west had a monopoly of virtue, philanthropy, compassion and aid-giving capacity, and that no one else mattered, unless, of course, they sought to prevent us doing our good deeds.
But there was a problem. Not only was the Myanmar regime obdurate in its refusal to take our aid, but any military intervention was certain to provoke the ire of virtually every single country in east Asia, starting with China, India and the Asean countries.
Western interventionism, in other words, came face to face with what might be described as the new east Asian reality. And the result? Western interventionism was quietly abandoned. Belatedly, western governments finally came to recognise that the only viable and practical solution to the aid conundrum was reached at the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Singapore last Monday, with Myanmar’s agreement that it would belatedly accept foreign aid channelled through Asean (of which, of course, it is a member) and that aid workers from these countries would be welcome. End of western bluster. End of story.
The argument over Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis, however, has much wider implications. The rise of east Asia – and not just China, note – means that the region is perfectly capable of finding its own solutions to its problems.
You may remember that at the time of the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998, the IMF stepped in and imposed punitive conditions for its loans to three of the worst-affected countries, namely Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea. If such a crisis was to be repeated now, it is extremely unlikely that the IMF would be involved, except perhaps in a relatively marginal way. The reason is that Asean, China, Japan and South Korea have since concluded a mutual support agreement to defend their currencies in the event of any speculative attack.
Instead of a western-inspired IMF rescue, there would be a regional support system, with China no doubt playing a key role. The rise of east Asia, in other words, means that the west’s authority and influence in the region has been greatly diminished. It is neither accepted nor wanted in the way that was once the case.
How long will it take for the west to wake up to these realities, to stop behaving as if east Asia was simply another supplicant region in the world for whom the west always knows best?
My guess is a rather long time. These kinds of attitudes are deeply embedded in the western psyche, reflecting the fact that the west has been global top dog for two centuries or more, and a resulting value system that holds that we are both more advanced and of a superior stock.
There is no other civilisation that is so attached to its own universalism, the belief that our norms should be everyone else’s too. Nor is it just the politicians: on the contrary, the media has been at least as bad if not worse over Myanmar. Humphrys and Edward Stourton (who you might think should know better given that he made a radio series about the tigers called Asian Gold in the 1990s) pursued a persistently myopic and swashbuckling western-centric agenda on the Today programme, and that for an audience that is supposed to consist of the nation’s opinion-formers.