Asia and America in the Mirror
Image Credit: Satish Krishnamurthy

Asia and America in the Mirror


This is my last entry as editor of The Diplomat. As many readers will have spotted from the notice on our website a few weeks ago, I will be leaving to take up a broadcast media role in New York, and so I’ll be handing over the reins at the end of today to Joel Whitney. I wish Joel the best of luck and hope he finds working with The Diplomat as exciting as I have done.

I’ve been involved with The Diplomat for a few years now, first as a freelance contributor when The Diplomat was a print publication based in Sydney, then as part-time web editor, and since September 2009 as full-time editor when the magazine relaunched and moved completely online.

It has been the most rewarding of roles – it’s hard to imagine a more exciting time to be editor of an Asia-Pacific magazine. It has also been hugely interesting and challenging to be involved with a publication when it is effectively starting fresh, with a new look and new focus.

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The shift to being based out of Tokyo brought with it a change in emphasis from a more Australia-focused magazine to a pan-Asia perspective. We are based in Japan, but not always looking at the issues from a Japanese perspective. And we also wanted to give an Asian perspective to Asia-Pacific affairs. It seems obvious, but we really felt there was space for a publication that could help present to Western readers a non-Western perspective. So we’ve worked hard to find local writers who can give their own take on the big questions facing their country.

But such perspectives would have had less influence if we didn’t have a growing global readership to share these local views with, and so we’ve found ourselves juggling many tasks – finding content, developing an audience, and trying to establish a strong reputation for quality and fair coverage.

One need only look at the comments section of some of our feature articles to see that not every reader feels we have struck a balance with our coverage (although I am happy to see they keep returning, perhaps in hope that we will). We are sometimes criticized for being too tough on China, not tough enough on the U.S. or indeed of being funded by all manner of government agencies. The latter isn’t true, and the former, if true, is by no means deliberate.

We’ve had a very open editorial policy – as long as the arguments are sound, the tone moderate and the writing incisive, then we’ve looked to give all “sides” their say. I encourage all those with an interest in the region to continue this debate in the coming months and years – if there’s a point of view that readers don’t feel has had a proper airing then please drop us a line. We are always looking for new ideas to share with readers.

I spent almost six years in Tokyo and had the chance to do plenty of traveling around Japan and the region, so I got a bird’s eye view of the extraordinary changes and events taking place in the past several years, whether it was Beijing’s preparations for the 2008 Olympics or the earthquake and tsunami that rocked northeastern Japan in March last year. But having spent so much time in the region, I sometimes found myself increasingly frustrated by the perspective of those outside and looking into Asia. I summed it up in my first blog entry for China Power, entitled “How We See Ourselves.”

Back then, I talked about my frustration with an opinion piece on China by Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson. Drawing on points raised in Martin Jacques' book When China Rules the World, he wrote:

“China accepts and supports the existing order when that serves its needs, as when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Otherwise, it plays by its own rules and norms…Most American-Chinese disputes reflect China’s unwillingness to endanger domestic goals for international ends. It won't commit to binding greenhouse gas cuts because these could reduce economic growth and…jobs.”

It’s hard in a U.S. election year not to wince at the irony of these words. Yes, China accepts certain rules when it suits, but as I noted in response to this article back in February 2010, many Europeans would have made just the same charge against the United States in the lead up to the Iraq War. And it’s also hard when hearing some of the rhetoric in this year’s presidential campaign (silly arguments about patriotism and light bulbs anyone?) to take seriously the implication that U.S. environmental policy is somehow driven by the best interests of the international community.

Samuelson had one thing right – it “would be a tragedy if these two superpowers began regarding each other as adversaries.”  Yet the Western-centric diagnosis of the problem is often, well, a problem. This isn’t to excuse all of China’s actions – as I mentioned earlier, contributors to The Diplomat are often tough on Chinese policy. But by failing to see ourselves as others see us, we make the path to tension and even conflict that bit smoother.

That brings me back to where I started – one of our goals with The Diplomat was to try to let Asia fill in some of the blanks of understanding about itself that Western readers are often confronted with. And one of the hopes with this editor’s blog was to bring the perspectives I had gained having lived in Asia to Western readers.

It does us all good, as citizens of a country and as individuals, to look in the mirror and see what other nations might be seeing. What we see might surprise us, or at least make us stop and think. And with that in mind, I’m handing the mirror over to Joel.

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