In 1960, the year the East-West Center was founded by Congress to promote understanding and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, Americans largely regarded the region as significant as the secondary Cold War theatre after Europe. Today, economic and resources issues dominate U.S.-Asia-Pacific relations, a consequence of the region’s rapid economic growth. Excluded from many international organizations in 1960, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Korea are major voices at the G-20, the world’s premier international economic institution.
The new, complex challenges in U.S.-Asia-Pacific relations place an even greater premium on the kind of solid analysis and collaborative, cross-cultural dialogue that have long been East-West Center hallmarks in our research and education programs, as well as our shorter-term exchanges for policymakers, journalists, teachers and other opinion leaders.
This weekend, hundreds of Center alumni — many of them experts and leaders in their fields — will be gathering at the Hawaii Convention Center to share ideas about issues critical to the region, as well as to celebrate the institution’s golden anniversary.
High on the agenda of the 50th Anniversary International Conference is a global issue not on anyone’s radar screen in 1960: climate change. With limited energy resources, Asia is already the world’s largest market for imported petroleum products, and China has now surpassed the United States as the largest overall emitter of greenhouse gasses.
Climate change cannot be addressed without the cooperation of the United States and Asia, but as the thorny negotiations at last year’s Copenhagen summit illustrated, huge gaps remain in perceptions of national interests and responsibilities that make collective action difficult. In quandaries such as these the collaborative, non-governmental approach of the East-West Center — where regional environmental work began more than 30 years ago — can be most useful.
Another set of issues relates to the dramatic population shifts that the region is now experiencing — aging and urbanization. In the 1960s, birth rates were often three times that of today, while life spans were significantly shorter. Japan, with the world’s oldest work force, is leading the way, but Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China are right behind it. The scope and rapidity of demographic changes in Asia are unprecedented in human history, with obviously far-reaching but uncertain implications for health services, savings and pension systems, economic productivity, innovation, and even politics and foreign policy.
The Asia-Pacific region’s continued economic dynamism is also of great interest, particularly as many Western nations continue to struggle with recovery from recession. In the past 50 years, Asia has moved from having less than 20 percent of world product to about 35 percent today. The fundamentals are in place for continued expansion, so that the region will again have the majority of world economic activity by mid-century, a position it lost 200 years ago at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Well before 2050, the total size of China’s economy is expected to exceed that of the United States.
Other big issues in U.S.-Asia-Pacific relations include denuclearization and security conflicts, human rights and governance challenges, health threats, trade integration, education and energy security.
While such topics will receive serious discussion at the conference this weekend, it is also an occasion for a joyful reunion of EWC friends and colleagues from more than 35 countries. For many, it will be a homecoming to Hawaii, where generations of East-West Center participants have felt so warmly received in the spirit of aloha — an important reason why the Center has such a large, devoted family of international alumni.
As the culminating event of the East-West Center’s 50th anniversary commemorations, the conference is an opportunity for the Center community to honor our past and our present.
It is also a time to reaffirm the institution’s enhanced relevance for a future in which Asia and the Pacific are clearly becoming ever more important to the United States.