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The Asia-Pacific Region

The Asia-Pacific Region
-Krishnan Srinivasan


The Asia-Pacific, like Asia, emerging Asia or South Asia, is fungible and not an easy expression to define. In the 1980s the term was associated with membership of APEC but after the Obama visit this year, apparently includes India, at least in US strategic thinking.



Nothing over the past few decades has changed the global economy like the rise of China, which, with the industrialization and modernization of certain other parts of Asia, has led to a most remarkable transformation in the past 30 years, and is the reason for the re-orientation of the global economy towards the Asia-Pacific. From being recipients of manufactures to exporters of a competitive variety of goods and services, emerging Asia has impacted global financial markets, production networks and pricing of commodities, apart from having an increasing bearing on global political strategies. Small regions like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao enjoy developed-nation living standards and high economic growth rates and GDP is a reference point to influential world capitals; apart from Japan, four Asian countries are in the top 16 of the World Bank’s GDP table for 2014—China, India, South Korea and Indonesia. Besides this, there are many positive Asian trends to be discerned, political, institutional, technological and educational among them. Indian, Chinese and South Korean cultures, including pop culture, have gone global and added immensely to soft power perceptions.


If these trends in basic indicators continue, the Asia-Pacific’s political and economic influence in regional and world affairs will increase, but the Asian rise harbours risks that can undermine the transformative process. Asia needs technology and specialized skills to climb the value-added chain and avoid the middle-income trap. The unsettled relationship among rising and established powers, and between the rising powers themselves, may hasten or delay the advent of an ‘Asian century’, although dire predictions of the implosion of China and the descent of India into dystopia have proved wrong, and there is growing optimism among the Asian capitals.


Let me confine myself (like the other speakers at this conference) to the Asian and not the American continent in the Asia-Pacific formulation. It remains an open question whether the Asian rise will lead to emerging Asia constituting a new group of world powers, though clearly China is already well on the way to that status with the Belt and Road, the AIIB and the FTAAP proposals. Chinese interests have acquired a global character. The rest of emerging Asia is mainly an economic and cultural phenomenon, but this is part of an ongoing process. Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore show that with right interventions, developing countries can catch up with the advanced world.



Emerging Asian countries are allergic to the view that outsiders should prescribe policy preferences for them, but they do not yet present a rival ideology to the West. Over time they might offer an alternative discourse of modernity, for example, questioning the free market and democracy with a form of Sino-style semi free-market model within an authoritarian framework, but there is little conformity or parallel timelines across the concerned countries. The Asians are busy stressing their differences rather than their commonalities, especially in South Asia.

Even big and ancient Asian civilizations like India and China do not seek to make other countries like themselves, and have not articulated any world view apart from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and Xi Jinping’s four principles of major power relations which are too vague to build upon and which relate to unspecified core interests.


Meanwhile, the Asian part of Asia-Pacific remains the home of every conceivable instability. With the largest concentration of population, big increases in aspirational middle class, concerns over terrorism and proliferation of nuclear weapons, inter-state and intra-state tensions, abject poverty and climate change fears, the region enjoys neither political nor economic unity, with systems of government ranging from communism to liberal democracy. There are unresolved territorial disputes. The Korean peninsula is the most heavily armed region in the world. North Korea is a nuclear weapon state, and so are India and Pakistan. The strategic re-balancing exercise of the USA to the Asia-Pacific, in whatever form it takes, is seen by China as unhealthy containment. If there is any outbreak of warfare in Asia, the negative impact on the global economy would be immeasurable.


A degree of Asian economic integration has evolved over the past decades, and intra- Asian trade has exceeded NAFTA and will soon exceed the EU, but political cooperation remains fragmented .The political map is not the same as the economic map, and Asian integration will depend on relations between China, Japan and India, the big three on which any new Asian architecture would have to be based. They have a special role to lead but are too domestically preoccupied and have too little say in global institutions. There may not be a single ‘Asian way’, given the cultural and political differences between them. And different Asians have various expectations of any future Asian Community


Despite the disputes, emerging Asian economies are likely to focus on economic growth without external adventures. India and China account for half the global economic growth, with high savings and investment rates, though India’s economy is too closed to incorporate with the deep-integration free trade areas of Asia. China keeps interest rates low in the West even as it makes the difficult transition from manufacturing to services, high investment to higher consumption, and state driven decisions to free market determination. Despite foreign exchange reserves of $7.29 trillion, Emerging Asia is unusually dependent on consistent high growth to address its inequalities, mitigate environmental degradation, compete for finite natural resources and ensure food security. The economic boom is essential for the authority of the Communist Party of China, and increasingly important for re-election in democratic countries like India.


Asian cooperation, as seen in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF),  the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), is in the spirit of Asian norms; namely, the absence of confrontation, conscious use of reserve and restraint, respect for consensus-based solutions, reluctance to afford blame or force any partner to lose face, non-intrusiveness, ‘soft’ institutionalization and priority for harmonious conduct. In other words, good platforms for economic cooperation but falling well short of robust political engagement. Rhetoric about ‘win-win’ cooperation and attempts to craft a common narrative have not yet provided the commonalities needed for these countries to construct the appropriate architecture for political cohesion or to settle disputes.


Yet it is expected that Asian political weight, when not matched against one another and in its own neighbourhood (China/Japan, India /Pakistan) will continue to expand, as will the Asian sensitivity to western criticism regarding pollution, social mobility, freedom of expression and human rights. China is by far the most prominent emerging power, but the rest of the world is also conscious of its drawbacks in regard to population, pollution, gender imbalance, internal unrest, uneasy relations with neighbours and inadequate material resources. Chinese territorial and maritime claims are latent flashpoints, though the latter have not been adequately studied in other countries as to their origins and legitimacy.


China’s ambitions as a rising state can clash with those of the other main Asia-Pacific power, the United States. Competition for global resources and political and military tensions generate causes of concern. Such struggles, some historians tell us, have always accompanied the rise of new powers. The age of US primacy in Asia as the non-resident power is coming to a close but China cannot displace America completely and therein lies the danger, since the US has decided to reassert its influence in Asia. Yet it is difficult to find evidence of any real pivot to Asia. Due to budgetary and other limitations, the central component might comprise the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has been limping towards the finishing line; negotiations took more than six years with additional complications with Japan entering the talks and there may not be political support for the TPP in the US Congress.


Economic interdependence fosters greater cooperation, and the benefits of deeper integration are too strong for the parties to resist. The American allies in Asia, – Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore; and supporters like Vietnam and Thailand – have stronger economic ties with China than the USA. Political  cooperation will grow on the back of increasing intra-regional economic flows and here we must note the remarkable initiatives to address decades of hostility and mistrust in the recent meetings between the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea; between China and Taiwan; and the visit of South Korean Ban Ki Moon to North Korea. The last-named seems to have been postponed, but there is a new promise of direct North and South Korean talks.


Now that courtesy the USA, India has become an honorary member of the Asia Pacific, where does it stand in this scenario? India had no involvement in the unfolding tensions in the Asia Pacific, the China/Japan and Korea/Japan strife-strewn history, the islands disputes, Korean unification or the Taiwan Strait. There can be no question that China is the flying goose that has given the upthrust to economies all over the Asia Pacific, but India is not without its assets. It is belittled by its incessant quarrel with Pakistan, but its disorderly democracy, though we despair of it, is admired by all countries attempting to move in a democratic direction like Burma and Nepal. India is advantageously placed despite its low-income status because no big power can afford to ignore India. Its rise is considered benign, and its future full of promise.


We should maintain our friendly relations with major power centres, but avoid too close an identity with the US strategic agenda which is fickle. We should actively pursue normalization of relations with China,including by educting our public. In no country in the world is China regarded with greater ignorance and hostility, with the result that we wrongly see every Chinese activity in South Asia as Indo-centric. We shall garner no international support in any conflict with China or Pakistan; this calls for faster movement towards determining the line of control with China, and fresh thinking on Pakistan which has become the ‘indispensable nation’ to Afghanistan, China, the USA and many countries in the Arab peninsula. We cannot expect third countries to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. As T.N. Ninan has said in his recent book, economic growth is India’s best foreign policy. We should forget about South Asia or the Indian Ocean being an exclusive sphere of Indian influence, but concentrate our minds on our legitimate security interests and encourage partners to be stakeholders in our economic growth.


Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary