Saturday, November 25, 2017
The new Asian outlook: Modi, Xi and Abe represent moderate right-wing nationalism
It is a coincidence that can be interpreted as the expression of the zeitgeist or the spirit of the time that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe form a political constellation, and their agendas are rightist refractions of nationalist temper, but which is guardedly expressed in terms of achieving domestic well-being. Modi has his New India by 2022 vision, Xi speaks of a moderately prosperous China by 2050 and Abe is looking to revive the Japanese right to arm itself which is prohibited under the United States-imposed 1947 constitution. India ($2.2 trillion), China ($11.2 trillion) and Japan ($4.9 trillion) are the fifth, second and third largest economies in the world after the US in 2016. How does the much talked about Asian century look as we race towards the 2020s?
India is one of the strong economies by its sheer size though there are too many structural weaknesses which cannot be wished away. It is a stuttering economic engine, which is yet to get into the top gear of double-digit growth for a decade and more. China’s heated economic growth of three decades is slowing down though it is far from a state of entropy. The great challenge, political as well as economic, that China is facing is corruption, which should ring a bell for Modi. It is the Japanese economy which appears to be in a state of entropy after clocking amazing growth through the 1950s to 1980s. It has been experiencing a stagnation trap from the early 1990s onwards, despite interest rates hovering at zero and a little above it, but without much success.
The paradox is this. Asia’s biggest economies are at the top of the league in many ways though the US and the European Union are still throwing their weight around. Among the three economic giants, it is China that can flex its political muscle on the global stage. Xi has however assured that China is not interested in hegemonic games while Beijing throws tantrums in South China Sea, and the relatively well-to-do ASEAN economies feel a little helpless in the face of China, and look to the US to counter Beijing’s overwhelming presence the region.
The US, which is yet to recover from the economic battering of the 2007 financial meltdown, is looking to India, Japan and Australia to do the job of keeping China at bay. Japan would not want to repeat its blunder of aggression which it had committed in the 1930s. It is quite keen to mend it fences with China despite the periodic eruption of frayed tempers on both sides, more so on the part of China. Indian nationalists may want to cross swords with China, but the political leadership is aware of the difficulties and limitations. In the Doklam tussle, it is New Delhi that held its peace and let China rant before the fracas died down.
It looks like that India, China and Japan are eyeing each other warily, and this is especially so in the cases of India and China, and Japan and China. At the same time, the Sino-Japanese economic ties continue to prosper (Japanese exports to China stand at $113 billion, next only to exports to the US at $130 billion; China’s exports to Japan: $129 billion compared to China’s exports to the US: $385 billion; to Hong Kong: $287 billion) as do India-China trade flows (China’s exports to India: $58.33 billion; Indian exports to China: $11.76 billion). The India-Japan trade relations are tepid compared to that between India and China. India’s exports to Japan amount to $ 4.66 billion, while imports from Japan stand at $ 9.85 billion. (All the figures are for 2016.)
Despite denials, India, China and Japan are potential rivals in Asia. India has the moral and political advantage in south-east Asia because ASEAN countries do not like Japan because of the bitter memories of Japanese militarism in the region. China by its sheer size intimidates the smaller countries. India has a friendly reputation, but it is not in a position either to extend a military umbrella like the US, nor can India provide the market for ASEAN though it is what is expected from New Delhi. India and China have been vying for influence in Africa, with China having an upper hand for the moment.
India because of its geographical proximity has a role to play in west Asia, an area which is overlooked in all discussions about 21st century being an Asian century for the simple reason that Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the big economies in the region, do not have the clout either in terms of their size or their ability to invest in the rest of the world. They are important in the strategic sense, but they do not have much to contribute by way of trade flows in terms of industrial and technological exports. So, the big picture of Asia will always tilt in favour of India, China and Japan because of the economic muscle of these three countries.
Modi, Xi and Abe are busy dealing with their home constituencies and the domestic challenges they pose. And they appear to be unchallenged leaders in their own countries. The nationalist rhetoric that these three leaders are compelled to use does not point to Asian domination in the rest of the world. The three can still hope to reach out with their goods and services, but they cannot command the political and military power to provide ballast to their economies the way European powers did in the first half of the 20th century, and the US in the second half. It would be a multi-polar world for much of the rest of the century, with India, China and Japan struggling to assert themselves on the world stage.
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