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The End of America's Pacific Century, by John Feffer

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This story originally appeared at  TomDispatch .com.

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Usually it's the giant stories that catch your eye. The wars, the uproars, the Arab Spring -- the things you can't miss. But every now and then, news stories about easily overlooked subjects somehow manage to shine the strongest light on a changing world. 

The Cohn sisters, Claribel and Etta, from a wealthy Baltimore family, arrived in Paris in 1905, spent time with Gertrude Stein, and soon began buying the work of unknown artists with names like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse for a song.  Before they were done, they had amassed a remarkable collection of modern art (and artistic objects from around the world), now lodged permanently at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  They were art admirers, collectors, and at heart early global shoppers par excellence.  It was, of course, the beginning of what would soon enough be known as the American Century and American writers, artists, and shoppers, too, were flocking to the Old World for solace, refuge, and kicks.

They have their surprising equivalents today, the New York Times reported recently, even if the newest shoppers to hit Paris en masse evidently aren't buying the art of obscure painters.  We're talking here about Chinese tourism (rising in the French capital at a 15% clip annually).  The latest round of tourists to climb the Eiffel Tower are spending, on average, $1,800 each on shopping.  The money is mainly going for luxury brand products, often at large department stores like Galeries Lafayette, which now have Chinese-language briefings, "Chinese-speaking personal shoppers, and Chinese public-address announcements." 

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China's Atlantic Century?  Crazier things have happened in history. 

American Publisher Henry Luce announced the coming of the American Century in Life, his own magazine, in 1941.  Americans, he wrote, were to "accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."  Luce, the son of American missionaries born in China, had no doubt that it would be a Pacific Century.  In those years, Americans, in fact, liked to refer to the Pacific as an "American Lake," and in World War II we did indeed take ownership of it.  (As a Tin Pan Alley song title of the era put it, "To Be Specific, It's Our Pacific.") 

Seventy years later, TomDispatch regular and co-director of the website Foreign Policy in Focus John Feffer suggests that, despite all our military bases in the region, the Pacific is now anything but an American lake and -- just in case we hadn't noticed -- election year 2012 will make that so much clearer to us. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Feffer discusses the 2012 election season in Asia click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Why 2012 Will Shake Up Asia and the World
Can Washington Move from Pacific Power to Pacific Partner?

By John Feffer

The United States has long styled itself a Pacific power. It established the model of counterinsurgency in the Philippines in 1899 and defeated the Japanese in World War II. It faced down the Chinese and the North Koreans to keep the Korean peninsula divided in 1950, and it armed the Taiwanese to the teeth. Today, America maintains the most powerful military in the Pacific region, supported by a constellation of military bases, bilateral alliances, and about 100,000 service personnel.

It has, however, reached the high-water mark of its Pacific presence and influence. The geopolitical map is about to be redrawn. Northeast Asia, the area of the world with the greatest concentration of economic and military power, is on the verge of a regional transformation. And the United States, still preoccupied with the Middle East and hobbled by a stalled and stagnating economy, will be the odd man out.

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Elections will be part of the change. Next year, South Koreans, Russians, and Taiwanese will all go to the polls. In 2012, the Chinese Communist Party will also ratify its choice of a new leader to take over from President Hu Jintao.  He will be the man expected to preside over the country's rise from the number two spot to the pinnacle of the global economy.

But here's the real surprise in store for Washington. The catalyst of change may turn out to be the country in the region that has so far changed the least: North Korea. In 2012, the North Korean government has trumpeted to its people a promise to create kangsong taeguk, or an economically prosperous and militarily strong country. Pyongyang now has to deliver somehow on that promise -- at a time of food shortages, overall economic stagnation, and political uncertainty. This dream of 2012 is propelling the regime in Pyongyang to shift into diplomatic high gear, and that, in turn, is already creating enormous opportunities for key Pacific powers.

Washington, which has focused for years on North Korea's small but developing nuclear arsenal, has barely been paying attention to the larger developments in Asia. Nor will Asia's looming transformation be a hot topic in our own presidential election next year. We'll be arguing about jobs, health care, and whether the president is a socialist or his Republican challenger a nutcase. Aside from some ritual China-bashing, Asia will merit little mention.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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