The West kicked Asia when it was down. Now it's rising up

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The Independent Online
For the first time since records began, the US is no longer Japan's largest trading partner - China is. The People's Republic now accounts for just over 20 per cent of total Japanese trade, compared with a US share of 18.5 per cent

This is part of a region-wide phenomenon: typically, the share of Asian countries' exports going to China has doubled in four years. China itself has been one catalyst but there have been others, including the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998.

Serious lessons were learned, the first being that Asia's long suspicion of co-operating with its neighbours meant a total lack of co-operation as the contagion spread. However, it also learned that foreigners bearing advice were even less trustworthy. There was a deep frustration with the policies imposed on the region by the International Monetary Fund, including jacking up interest rates and an insistence on fiscal austerity as a condition of various bail-out packages. Tighter, and simultaneous, fiscal and monetary policies swiftly brought down the region's economies, creating a bargain- hunting frenzy by US corporations buying Asian assets on the cheap.

There was outright anger over the US's refusal to support the November 1998 Sakakibara Plan to provide up to $100bn of funds for assisting the region. The explanation in Asia was that the US wanted the IMF, which is under its influence, to remain the sole actor in the crisis and prevent the building of any home-grown economic defences. In the end, that has proved counter-productive: Asia is now developing precisely that and more.

There are discussions about instituting an Asian Monetary Fund to provide balance of payments support for Asian countries when necessary, so bypassing IMF conditions which, it is perceived, too often support US economic and corporate interests. There is also talk of an Asian economic area; a single market; and, by 2020, of a "Community" that will include three pillars of co-operation - political and security, economic and socio-cultural. There is even talk of an eventual Asian single currency.

The region is looking with intense interest at Europe's experiment in economic inte- gration. If Europe's efforts founder, it may find that Asia develops a superior model by learning from the EU's mistakes. And if that is successful, Europe may discover that it has unwittingly fuelled the competitiveness of a mighty rival.