Asia's emergence as a major economic force has been a major area of focus for the Kenan Institute and UNC Kenan-Flagler for decades. It continues to be so as both expand degree programs, research partnerships and business development work in Asia.
The Asia Society, meanwhile, has been in the forefront of institutions working to promote understanding and partnership between the United States and Asia through programs in the arts, business, culture, education and policy.
Asia Society President and CEO Vishakha Desai visited the institute recently to share her insights into the state of U.S.-Asia relations, what the rise of China and India will mean for our world and what universities can contribute.
Here are excerpts of that conversation.
Desai: Our organization is an educational institution, and our mission is to strengthen partnerships and promote mutual understanding among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States.
I think it's a very important mission today because the 21st century is really going to be much more about Asia than any other part of the world, and we all have to get ready for it.
Kenan Institute: What is the mission of the Asia Society?
Desai: The bottom line is that we are in the business of preparing Asians and Americans to build a shared future.
In order to work together, you have to learn about each other. So, therefore, mutual understanding is important. Now how do we do that? There are so many different ways.
We feel that three-dimensional engagement with Asia is very important. Today, we talk about the economic power and the political power of big countries, especially like China or India. But the reality is that these are millennial civilizations. They have deep, deep cultural roots. If you don't understand the cultural basis, you can't completely understand the political and economic ramifications.
We often say that we're in the business of combining culture, commerce and current affairs – those three Cs that help us to convene the right people, to conceive the right project and to get them to catalyze the right action.
That's what we're about. So, we do it in arts. We do it through culture. We do it through our conferences. We do it through policy discussions. We do it through publications. And we also do it through teaching kids about Asia.
Kenan Institute: How can we foster cooperation as new superpowers arise?
Desai: Oftentimes, I think in the West we're too transactional. So when we go, we have our own agenda. We don't always think about the fact that knowledge about culture matters; that we need to understand the economic and political dynamic together and then add the knowledge of culture with it so that we can make more informed judgments about how to make decisions.
But most importantly and this is what my Asian friends tell me we also need to create a sense of parity. It's really about talking to equals. That's hard for us because America has been the sole superpower for at least the last 30 years.
We have been so used to being the center of the universe for the last 75 years, that how to actually think about ourselves as a major player, but not the sole superpower, is tough. Nobody easily gives up that position of power.
It's not about giving up. It's actually about understanding that this doesn't have to be a zero sum game – that somebody's gain is not our loss necessarily.
So how do we understand what Fareed Zakaria calls, "the rise of the rest," so that this is really the age of a multipolar world? And in this multipolarity, how do we play responsibly as a major player and how do we encourage and work with others so they are responsible players?
We have to make sure that these kinds of things don't turn into tensions, because we can't afford it.
Kenan Institute: What role do universities play in the rise of Asia?
Desai: I do think that the corporate world has actually figured this out. So what we [universities] have to do is to educate our policymakers. They have to understand that the world out there is not the world that they've known. The majority of our lawmakers don't even have a visa or a passport. So how do we educate our lawmakers and work with them? That's number one.
Number two, I think that at the university level, you're also teaching students. So how do you inculcate in the students from the get-go that they no longer have an option of being parochial? There is no option. Any time you pick something up from Wal-Mart, you know it's made in China. If Chinese don't produce that, it affects us.
Everything we do is somehow interconnected. And in that interconnected world, knowing about other people, other cultures and the diversity of those cultures, and understanding differences even if you don't agree, is crucial. That's what the universities can do.