However, the future looks distinctly multipolar, with no single leader emerging to fill the leadership vacuum created by a US retreat. It is important that incumbent powers such as the US and the European Union make space for the rise of Asia and other centres of power.
Mustapa Mohamed, Minister of International Trade and Industry of Malaysia, who was personally involved in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, said the US withdrawal from the TPP will certainly have an impact on the world economy. He added, however, that China, India and ASEAN are growing fast, confident in their potential, and focused on creating jobs and making growth equitable and sustainable. While supporting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) being negotiated between ASEAN and six neighbouring countries, and regional integration within Asia, Mohamed underlined the need to continue creating and expanding linkages with the outside world, perhaps by revitalizing the World Trade Organization.
“Things happen for a good reason,” said Li Daokui, Dean, Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, People's Republic of China, adding that the TPP was essentially a flawed idea because it makes no sense for a country far from the region to try to forge relations while bypassing China, the biggest trading powerhouse. He said that China would be the natural leader of economic integration in the region. China and ASEAN see eye-to-eye on this, he said, adding that this only leaves India, although China is keen to “get everybody on the bicycle … and pedal hard.”
The United States’ inward turn – at a time when other countries are forging partnerships and creating initiatives such as the BRICS New Development Bank, China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and free trade agreements in the Pacific – will harm the US the most, said Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, USA.
While China is the undisputed economic and trade leader in Asia, ASEAN is the “great untold success story of our times,” said Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He said ASEAN has turned the “Balkans of Asia” into a highly prosperous and peaceful region, and has been a key player in the “miraculous, peaceful rise” of China by creating an enabling regional environment of harmony. The China-ASEAN relationship is marked by mutual respect, he noted, and their trade graph is rising steadily. Mahbubani also made a case for China assuming the leadership role to see RCEP through.
Anthony F. Fernandes, Group Chief Executive Officer of AirAsia, Malaysia, said there is significant intra-ASEAN start-up activity, and members must work towards making borders irrelevant, particularly for digital and fintech businesses, to fully realize the potential of this 700-million-strong market.
Li pointed out that China considers its relationship with the US to be most important, and said China’s leadership style – if and when it assumes greater leadership globally – will be very different from the style with which the US has led. Instead, he said, China follows a more Confucian philosophy of leading by action and not words.
Nevertheless, Mahbubani said, China must prepare to take a more assertive stance if the situation warrants, particularly since, as the world’s largest importer and exporter, China has the largest stake in maintaining a peaceful global system. At the same time, he added, incumbent powers must do away with “absurd rules“ such as those that reserve the top positions at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for a US and EU citizen, respectively, and prepare to share power with newly emerging countries.