Note from Steve Clemons: This is a guest post by G. John Ikenberry who is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University in the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. My personal thanks to Ikenberry and to Kishore Mahbubani and others for engaging in this debate — as I can think of few other topics more important than theirs for the country to wrestle with.
From G. John Ikenberry:
GJI3.jpgSteve Clemons has provoked me to write about the “next fault line” in the foreign policy debate – “The U.S. Matters” vs. “No, It Really Doesn’t” – by responding to Kishore Mahbubani’s provocative new book. Kishore is a good friend and he is one of the smartest and most insightful public intellectuals on the scene today. So it is a pleasure to exchange ideas with him.
Kishore and I clearly have major points of agreement. These include many of his general themes: that the rise of Asia is perhaps the seminal macro-historical event of our era; that we are witnessing an extraordinary renaissance in Asian societies; and that Asia has a lot that it can bring – experience, resources, a huge portion of humanity – to the collective management of world order.
But I disagree with Kishore on other themes he advances, particularly his argument that the West is somehow impeding or resisting the rise of Asia. I also disagree with the thesis that sometimes works its way into Kishore’s writing, namely that the “rise” of Asia entails the inevitable “decline” of America or the West as a producer of global order and governance. Most of all, I disagree with Kishore’s tendency to cast the debate about the coming global order as a struggle between East and West.
The real struggle is between those who want to renew and expand today’s rule-based global order – which America itself championed for most of the postwar decades – or move to some sort of less cooperative order built on spheres of influence and power balances. These fault lines do not map onto geography nor do they split Asia and the West.
I agree with Kishore that the international distribution of power is shifting with the rise of Asia, but I do not see a great transformation in the organizing logic or principles of international order following from it.
To put it bluntly, I do not see Asia offering anything new or distinctive in the organization and governance of the global system. I do not see a lot of new ideas about how global rules and institutions should be transformed. I do not see an “Asian way” of world politics. I do see efforts – legitimate efforts – to get seats at various tables. But the tables are not newly designed Asian tables. They are just tables, many of them dating from earlier decades when the United States really did shape the rules and institutions of the global system.
What I found missing in Kishore’s book was a discussion of what actually a more powerful Asia might do with its power.
Indeed, what is most striking about the rise of Asia is a silence on the big questions. This is clearly the case with China, which has been quietly working with and within existing frameworks of global cooperation. Arguably, over the last seven years, it is the United States – not China – that has been most “revisionist” in its global orientation. China is more worried that the United States will abandon its commitment to the old, Western-oriented global rules and institutions than it is eager to advance a new set of Asian-generated rules and institutions.
So the idea of an “Asian century” is misleading. The notion behind this sort of grand thinking borrows from the old great power image of world politics. Great powers rise and fall. In this old fashion vision, America had its moment and now it is giving way to China.
But this misses my big argument: that the United States was not just a powerful state, it also built an international order. That order still exists – and indeed it has expanded to encompass much of the world. China – and Greater Asia – is rising in power but it is also integrating into this international order.
The order that America helped produce is unlike orders produced by earlier great powers. Compared with earlier orders, the American-led order is “easy to join and hard to overturn.” Today this order is not really an American order or even a Western order. It is an international order with deep and encompassing economic and political rules and institutions that are both durable and functional.
The key point is that there is no alternative “Asian international order” that China and the rest of Asia are attempting to call forth – doing so if only the West would, as Kishore urges, gracefully make way for it. In my view, Asian countries want to join and help run the existing global system not overturn it.
It is here that I make a series of arguments about how the United States should think about the rise of China and the future of the West. I laid out my thesis in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.
Essentially, I make three points.
One is that the best way to shape the terms of China’s – and Asia’s – rise is to reaffirm and rebuild the Western-led postwar rules and institutions that define the current world order and through which the U.S. has exercised leadership all these years. This order has been — in contrast to past international orders — relatively easy to join. It is an international order that has – in contrast to past international orders – spread wealth and economic growth relatively widely. This international order has also been one – in contrast to past international orders – where political voice and influence has been widely shared among states. This Western system is America’s greatest asset and we should strengthen it and by so doing strengthen the incentives China will have to integrate and join rather than oppose and seek to overturn it.
A second point is that, ironically, China may well be tomorrow’s greatest supporter of the American-led postwar system. That system provides rules and institutions for openness and nondiscrimination. These are features of order that China will want going forward as its growing economic weight will be greeted by efforts by others (including some governments in the West) to close and discriminate. Rule-based international order is not a Western fixation. It is a system of governance that all states – East and West – have some interest in maintaining, China not least. China joined the WTO. Is the WTO a Western institution? I am not sure this is a useful question to debate. It is a functional institution that states – East or West – have incentives to join.
Finally, I argue that America’s unipolar position will slowly wane. And so, today, the United States should be asking itself: what sort of international order do we want to have in place in 2040 or 2050 when we are relatively less powerful?
I call this the neo-Rawlsian question of our time!
It was the famous political philosopher John Rawls who suggested that political institutions should be designed behind a “vale of ignorance” – that is, under conditions where the architects of the institutions did not know precisely where they would be within the resulting socio-economic system. This thought experiment forced the institution builders to design institutions that would safeguard his interests regardless of where he or she ended up – weak or strong, rich or poor.
The United States needs to engage in a similar thought experiment. We should try to lay down rules and institutions today — or reaffirm the old ones — so that we can protect our interests when we are less commanding in our global presence. I don’t know if John Rawls would approve, but I borrow his inspiration!
My answer is that the United States should want to invest today in renewing and expanding a global system what will give it the best opportunities to be safe and prosperous when the rest of the world looms larger.
In the age of rising Asian power, reports of the death of the West are greatly exaggerated. It is the grand liberal ascendancy of the last hundred years – and the quiet revolution of postwar liberal international order – that define the logic and choices of global order in the 21st century.
This is true regardless of whether Asia and the West are rising or declining or just standing still.
— G. John Ikenberry


22 comments on “G. JOHN IKENBERRY RESPONDS: The Rise of Asia AND the West

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  2. rich says:

    I agree with much of what Ikenberry says above, particularly “the neo-Rawlsian question of our time”: “the United States should be asking itself: what sort of international order do we want to have in place in 2040 or 2050 when we are relatively less powerful?”
    Other Ikenberry points made in objecting to Mahbubani’s of an Eastern Ascendancy don’t seem to bear scrutiny. He objects, “To put it bluntly, I do not see Asia offering anything new or distinctive in the organization and governance of the global system. I do not see a lot of new ideas about how global rules and institutions should be transformed.”
    And? Playing within prevailing rules of governance does not in any way preclude Eastern Ascendancy. One need not transform global governance in order to rise in raw power, whether in concert with the broader family of nations, or at America’s /the West’s expense. In fact, playing by those rules is one basis of Eastern success—and security.
    It’s another variation on the classic path in which the slave masters the language of the master’s ‘house,’ and that eloquence and skill confers great status and power from within, though not wielded to burn the whole social structure down. (see Henry Louis Gates & Nellie McKay)
    DonBacon upthread is on the right track. Why use military aggression when China’s tactic of buying/financing US debt confers more formidable and less provocative brand of power?
    Ikenberry isn’t correct in saying the US hasn’t worked hard to keep Asian nations down.
    In 1945 we kept Vietnam down when Ho Chi Minh quoted Thomas Jefferson and appealed for assistance. Worse, after thirty years of warfare (in which we didn’t bother to adhere to our own rules of engagement, nor international rules)—the JSO reminds us that it took another 21 years after
    “Vietnam threw off its centrally planned economy in 1986 . .” for Vietnam to see it allowed to “join the World Trade Organization fraternity and [see] the U.S. finally normalize trade relations.”
    Reform proposals such as the “Concert of Democracies” are hardly reformist in the sense of substantive attempts to improve the effectiveness and utility of institutions of global governance. Killing the veto power of China and Russia should never be predicated on whether they’re democracies or not. The departure from Realpolitik is ill-advised and poorly thought-out.
    Democracies—as George Bush and Princeton think-tankers have so ably demonstrated—are perfectly capable of ginning up an unprovoked, destabilizing, and rules-breaking war.
    That alone should de-legitimize this talk about a ‘Concert of Democracies,’ and it rings esp false given Bush’s transparent rhetoric about bringing ‘Our Freedoms’ to the Middle East.
    There needs to be a broader public debate about his proposal. And the fact it hasn’t see the harsh public light of full civic debate speaks volumes.


  3. TokyoTom says:

    John, first, a small mnemonic that might be helpful:
    – the “vale of ignorance” is the Washington, DC and the Beltway area, where pursuit of power at the expense of taxpayers leads to many problems that requires more government to “solve” – such as the hasty, hubris-fuelled policies that
    took us “blind into Bagdad”.
    – certainly the powerful there are “veiled”, but whether ignorance or greed predominates is a tough call.
    Otherwise, I am certainly with you. As Fukuyama has been arguing for the past four years now, the US’ unilateralism has been profoundly short-sighted (although not coincidentally, personally very profitable for those at the top), and has brought us as a result to a real inflection point in US power. But Asia is asserting very little in terms of leadership or initiative in resolving problems of development, governance (greater transparency and protection of property) and rational management of (as opposed to a continued seflish race to exploit) shared resources and ecosystems (ocean fisheries the atmosphere).
    As a result, US leadership is still not only desirable but very much needed. The only question is whether Americans care enough about their future to wrest control over it from those who believe (for selfish reasons) that all the US has to offer the world comes from the barrel of our bloated defense establishment: http://tomdispatch.com/post/174936/frida_berrigan_the_pentagon_takes_over


  4. Andrew says:

    I’d like to invite all of you to visit my own blog: What You Must Read (at http://whatyoumustread.blogspot.com/). It deals with a lot of the same issues as the Washington Note, and -I like to think- it has some interesting links.
    I write a lot about how to sustain America’s power in the 21st century -be it through compromise and strategy.


  5. Steve Clemons says:

    Rowan — my blog is about inquiry and reasoned debate of big issues. John Ikenberry and Kishore Mahbubani are both friends and serious, big time intellectuals. I solicited Ikenberry’s comments and am going to solicit more.
    Glad for your comments — but listen, this is my blog and I do mostly what I like. You are welcome to do the same with yours and subject your own decisions to the catcalls of others.
    best regards,
    Steve Clemons


  6. Rowan Berkeley says:

    I find the fact that you have given Professor Ikenberry space to state his antediluvian views bizarre. I had assumed that your blog was based on awareness that US hegemony, having enjoyed, exploited, and vulgarised its brief moment in the sun, was irretrievably doomed, and that the only real alternative open to it was to either accept the fact, or to ‘take out’ the planetary biosphere, in a fit of sour grapes.


  7. Roger says:

    The alarming fact is that the world is growing larger and the
    United States is growing smaller. And the only thing that is
    growing larger here is our massive 53 $Trillion total debt and
    our increasing reliance on a fragile energy supply line that
    extends halfway around the world. No amount of fancy political
    rhetoric can obfuscate the undeniable fact that there are no
    magical equivalent energy replacements for oil. So we best
    prepare for the sobering realization that oil-rich countries and
    those with positive balances of trade are going to have the
    greater say in who gets the lion’s share of the dwindling
    reserves. Expect to see more oil-producing countries limit
    exports to conserve their dwindling reserves for future internal
    use. Everybody understands the difference between 1 and 0, but
    they will be shocked when facing up to the difference between
    1/1 and 1/0, which is where our massive 53 $Trillion debt is
    leading us. Since we are decades late in preparing for this
    disaster, our only recourse is to expect a massive jolt at the
    bottom of the cliff. Of course we’ll take the rest of the world
    down with us, so there’ll be no one to bail us out. What then? I
    guess we’ll have our lawyers declare bankruptcy, and we’ll walk
    away from our thousands of $Trillion of debt, and we’ll chop our
    McMansions into little shacks and use the rest for firewood, and
    we’ll plant gardens in our front yards. And the farmers will get
    back to using oxen to drag their ploughs through the fields, and
    learn how to build our own toilet seats for our outhouses. We’ll
    learn what life was like before the Oil Age.


  8. Albertde says:

    The litmus test in my opinion is the role of the US dollar as a reserve currency, particularly, as the currency of exchange for oil contracts.
    What is happening today is that the US is exporting inflation to Asia.
    Talk of a US-based order as some kind of benign influence is PR/BS. In actual fact, the US has been having a free ride economically and in reality is getting the rest of the world (especially Asia) to fund its trade deficit, budget deficit and implicitly, its military (which in America-speech, is called defence).


  9. Alan says:

    The World Bank, always under US leadership,has also made a contribtuion to the disillusion that affects our relations with South America, Africa and Asia. The very well paid experts playing with their models, descending on countries having travelled first class, staying at the only 5 star hotel in town proceed to provide prescriptions which look good in theory and end up being awful in practice. Add that to the general reluctance to accept American leadership nowadays.
    We need to send all our inhabitants in Think Tanks to an African Village and ask them live on a $1 a day. On their return, if they return, they can tells us what will work in that Village.


  10. JohnH says:

    “Like Ikenberry, I never really understood Kishore’s argument that the West was trying to block the rise of Asia.” Statements like this ignore the obvious.
    The Project for a New American Century–the basis of the Bush administration world view–clearly states their goal of “deterring any potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” The message is clear: China should not even think about becoming a regional power, much less a global one.
    Also, why else would the Bush administration want to control the energy spigot in the Persian Gulf? Most of the energy produced there flows to Asia. Controlling the spigot would the US to control the rise of Asia, or at least gives it leverage in case that Asians don’t behave according the Bush’s dictates.
    That was the theory. The reality is that the US finds itself in a serious predicament. To control the spigot and the flow of energy to China, it needs to borrow money from China to fund any war against Iran. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!


  11. jon says:

    China’s prominence is based on population, land area and
    economic power. It’s rapid expansion of economic power and
    greater integration into the world economy is what has given it
    renewed prominence after centuries of stagnation and internal
    fragmentation. Their focus is profoundly internal.
    China appears to be interested in securing resources for its
    needs and outlets for its products, and in improving the lives of
    its population and staving off rebellion. It is acting to assure its
    continued access and stability. It is rather like Singapore in this
    China also has long standing claims to substantial territories on
    its borders. Tibet and Taiwan are only the beginning of these
    claims, and China has not renounced any claims. China can be
    expected to use its increasing power to press those claims and to
    maneuver to place countries holding territories it claims at
    substantial disadvantages and under substantial pressure.
    Eventually, China might be expected to press claims for
    territories comprising its total historical limits – particularly if
    there are resources or strategic considerations that make those
    territories more attractive. There could also be inclinations to
    expand Chinese power or authority over countries and areas
    that have large ethnic chinese populations. Many ethnic chinese
    are poorly assimilated in other cultures and can be subject to
    great social and political pressure.
    China seems content with the framework of global agreements
    and institutions. However, they can be expected to press for
    changes that would be more beneficial to themselves and more
    in alignment with traditional chinese conceptual frameworks.


  12. bp says:

    The comments section is really humming. I want to make a practical point. Have you ever been across the table with a US delegation in town. esp the US Trade Representative (Carla Hills at al). The conversations (and threats) are al one way. You are given the heavy treatment. Open your door to our goods! But what about your farm subsidies? Not on the table! Or look at the US in the World Bank.
    The people in power in Asia and the commercial and business elites have got past the point at which the US is regarded as an even handed negotiator.
    Against this backdrop I don’t see the US as exercising moral and financial leadership. The recent bailing out of US and European banks by Dubai, China and Singapore (a tiny island where Kishore teaches) should be taken as a yellow light. The US has lost the one thing that set it apart: trust.


  13. Dan Kervick says:

    The rule-based international order, as it is currently constituted, is not some sort of magic framework for universal harmony and mutually beneficial cooperation. Like all systems of law, it is a system for regulating relations, including competitive relations, and preventing those relations from turning violent or chaotic, and producing the most extremely negative effects that relations between human beings and states have often produced in the past. But the fact that everyone obeys the rules does not guarantee win-win outcomes all around. For comparison, our domestic relations inside this country are governed by all sorts of rules and laws. That doesn’t mean that it is impossible for one enterprise to drive another enterprise into the ground, or at least damage it, in a perfectly legal way. Such win-lose outcomes occur all the time, without anybody violating the rules.
    So far, China doesn’t appear to be violating any rules so far as I can tell. It is no rogue state, but a rather well-behaved member of the international community. Yes it is competing hard in Africa and elsewhere in pursuit of its national economic interests, and its interests may sometimes run contrary to US interests. But that doesn’t mean it is violating the rules. There is no rule, for example, that permanent members of the Security Council *have to* vote to pave the way for foreign interventions in countries like th Sudan.
    The language the US likes to use is about China acting as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. Whatever the legitimacy of that argument, it is entirely possible for a country to obey international law to the letter, and yet not be a “responsible stakeholder” as the US would define it.


  14. Don Bacon says:

    The West isn’t somehow impeding or resisting the rise of Asia? Then replace weaklings Canada and Italy with powerhouses China and India in the G-8.


  15. Zathras says:

    Like Ikenberry, I never really understood Kishore’s argument that the West was trying to block the rise of Asia. From the Green Revolution in India to Nixon’s triangular diplomacy to the massive trade deficits run by the United States with both Japan and China, Asia’s rise — or as Ikenberry would say the rise of certain countries within Asia — has been actively assisted by the West. And with good reason, too, considering how much trouble Asia produced during most of the 20th Century.
    The first and third of Ikenberry points here seem sound to me. The second, concerning China’s adherence to a rules-based international system much like the one we have now, is more doubtful. It is least doubtful in areas where China interacts directly with the United States or with European countries acting together. In its relations with its neighbors, however, and in how it deals with weak nations that supply its economy with raw materials, China’s enthusiasm for an international order based on rules is liable to be at the mercy of its internal politics.
    These I regard as unpredictable. The entire history of China’s rise to the status of a world economic power has taken place in the context of historically very high rates of economic growth. These rates of growth cannot be sustained forever, and even before China’s growth slackens the problems it has helped produce — such as environmental catastrophes and the threat of inflation — may prove difficult for Beijing to address. The temptation will be great for a Chinese government fearing popular discontent to seek foreign targets. International rules of conduct may not suffice to keep that temptation in check.


  16. Don Bacon says:

    Perhaps, if China and Japan back away, the US could get a loan from the World Bank if it met certain imposed conditions on taxes, social security and military spending?


  17. TonyForesta says:

    The “international order” today is no different than the international order at the time our Cro Magnon cousins. All our differences are still resolved by beating each other over the heads with sticks. Our sticks are mechanically brilliant, technologically excellent, and highly advanced, -but we remain basically cavemen, and beasts.
    What exact “international order” are you referring to. Mr Ikenberry?
    How can you claim “the Western-led postwar rules and institutions that define the current world order and through which the U.S. has exercised leadership all these years”, actually exists, or has some relevence when the fascists in the Bush government, and by proxy America has ruthlessly undermined, rejected, insulted, slimed, dismissed, ignored, and reengineered entire system, and repudiated the socalled “international order’ in favor of the PNAC PaxAmericana supremist America pipedreams. America has spat on, and dismissed the “international order’. Other nations are forced to realign and form a new international orders to counter American hegemony, the crippling effects of irredeemable debt. America is no longer the power structure and dictator of new equations and contructs of the socalled “international order”. There is indeed a new world order, and America is a much weaker player.
    Read this http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/JE02Dj05.html article on dangers and deceptions of irredeemable debt, and weep. America is a debtor nation. A nation exceedingly burdened with crushing debt, and deficits. China, India, and emerging second world blocks in Central and South America, and in near and south Asia are lender nations. America is drowning in an ocean of debt, and deficits. The only solutions are massive increases in taxes, massive reductions in social services, and either an intelligent, and exceedingly arduous and painful process of restoration of fiscal responsibility, infrastructure investment, and a concerted effort to reduce the monstrous debt, – or default!
    Either way, America is teetering on the brink of financial calamity, and throwing mountains upon mountains of more borrowed money for political reasons at the predatory class and malfeasance organizations and industries responsible for this economic horrorshow is the worst possible option. We are shamelessly heaping America certain financial collapse and crushing mountains of debt on the shoulders of our children.
    Emerging nations, secondworld blocks, and European Union cleverly factor in America’s monstrous debt, tarnished credibility, lawless, supremist mechanations, total disdain for the rule of law, and our own Constitution, and hegemonic designs into the calulous of the new international order, and percieving America’s as a junk bond.


  18. Don Bacon says:

    Ah, but you’re guilty of Old Thinking. While you were watching the UN and other global institutions, and seeing no transformation, China was changing thew world in ways you didn’t notice. Three examples:
    COMMERCIALLY — from atimes:
    Globalization’s true avatar is now the containerized shipping unit, those standard 20-to-40-foot rectangular cargo boxes that are seamlessly transferred from oceangoing ships to inland transit, either by trains or trucks, or to inland-waterway transport on barges. Some 4,000 containerized cargo ships sail the world’s oceans, many of them carrying China-made goods. The largest container-ship companies in the world are Denmark’s Maersk, Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd and MSC from Belgium. China’s two state-owned shipping companies, China Ocean Shipping (Group) Co (COSCO) and China Shipping Container Lines Co Ltd (CSCL), are currently respectively the sixth- and eighth-largest shipping companies in the world. This makes the power currently accruing to China from the world shipping process even more remarkable. China is dominating the world with a fleet it does not own, that it sacrificed no treasure to build.
    MILITARILY — from Washington Times:
    Navy officials confirmed yesterday [13 Nov 06] that an aircraft carrier battle group failed to detect a Chinese submarine that surfaced within weapons range of the USS Kitty Hawk. Anti-submarine defenses for the carrier battle group will be reviewed as a result, they said. “It was not detected,” said one Navy official of the encounter with a Chinese diesel-powered attack submarine. “And we’re concerned about that, obviously.” The Chinese Song-class attack submarine surfaced near the carrier in deep waters off Okinawa on Oct. 26. It was armed with wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles.
    POLITICALLY — from China Embassy:
    Maintaining world peace. China does not participate in the arms race, nor does it seek military expansion. China resolutely opposes hegemonism, power politics, aggression and expansion in whatever form, as well as encroachments perpetrated by one country on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another, or interference in the internal affairs of another nation under the pretext of ethnic, religious or human rights issues.
    Bang-bang you’re dead, commercially, militarily and politically. That changes everything. While the old money sits around their tables jawing the Chinese have been moving and creating new paradigms.


  19. David says:

    “The real struggle is between those who want to renew and expand today’s rule-based global order – which America itself championed for most of the postwar decades – or move to some sort of less cooperative order built on spheres of influence and power balances. These fault lines do not map onto geography nor do they split Asia and the West.”
    The other struggle will continue to be the one I think rapier alludes to, the struggle between national leaders like Chavez and Morales, and the global corporate interests who view natural resources as more their purview than the purview of the inhabitants of the nations where those resources are found.


  20. JohnH says:

    Yes, the US was instrumental in establishing the rule based system. But that was yesterday. Most recently the US has been aggressively trying to sabotage the system, at least to the extent that rules are supposed to apply only to lesser nations. The United States is above any rules, though it is happy to tell others to play by them.
    It would be extraordinarily ironic if China were to follow the rules and grow increasingly influential, while the United States, as chief rule-breaker, saw its power continue to wane.


  21. rapier says:

    Elites in all nations no longer need their states to garner wealth and thus power. Wealth now comes not from states but from corporations. The modern business corporation is the ascendant human organizational model.
    That isn’t to say the state and it’s powers of police and regulation and money to disburse are not still important things to control. It’s just that they are not quite as all important as in the past and crucially corporate elites are ever more successful in co opting governments.
    The international system is breaking down to the extent that ‘national interest’ now often means how much money and assets can the elites gain by participating in the ‘free market’ economy.
    Nowhere is this more true than in China. It is impossible to decern any national interest in China’s over all policies without considering the commercial and money interests of the elites. Russia’s economic development is hugely concentrated in the hugely concentrated wealth of the energy owning elites.
    The operation of this new system within and between states could be judged as corrupt by old standards but the old standards are dying. In the US the Treasruy and the Fed have been fully taken over by Wall Streets commercial and investment banks and hardly anyone notices. Several trillion dollars of liability are being put onto the books of the FHLB , FNM, FRE and the books of the Fed itself which eventually the ‘government’ and taxpayers will have to swallow. It’s all necessary to “save the system” we are told. Who is to argue?


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