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Working Towards an Asian Century

This is an era in which kaleidoscopic changes are taking place in the world. They are getting to be most pronounced in Asia. It has come to stand for a possible paradigm in answer to the inspired exhortation of 19th century statesman, George Canning, calling a new world into existence to redress the balance of the old, though not in the sense intended by him. Gunnar Myrdal too, in his book ‘The Asian Drama’, comprehensively surveying the contours of the emerging world order, had envisaged a resurgent Asia building new pathways to progress and prosperity.

The world’s political and economic centres of gravity are certainly shifting to Asia, thanks to the vibrant presence and impressive success stories of a majority of newly industrialised nations in that region. It has now become axiomatic that at current growth rates, both India and China will get ahead of the US almost at about the same time (around 2040), with the quadrupling of India’s GDP between 2007 and 2020 and China overtaking Japan by 2010.

Everyone is now familiar with the breath-taking forecasts of the famous Goldman Sachs’ BRIC report that China and India will be the first and the second largest economies by 2050 in terms of GDP, and that China would become “the industrial workshop of the world” while India would stand out as “one of the great service societies” and “a motor for the world economy, and a key contributor to generating spending growth”.

Master key

The inter se ranking of India, China and Japan could be liable to shifts, but, on present showing, there will never come a time when the world, in general, and Asia, in particular, could afford to ignore the solid economic might of Japan. Korea and Taiwan (the latter viewed without the ‘One China’ blinkers) are the other luminous stars giving Asia its distinctive edge over the rest of the world. The performance of Asia’s other notable countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Pakistan and Thailand may not place them in the same league, but they too hold the potential of emerging as economic entities to reckon with, provided they harmonise their policies and approaches with those of the heavyweights of the region.

Normally, the master key for collective prosperity is for nations to organise themselves into associations for mutual cooperation to further their common goals and interests. At the same time, if there are too many of such outfits jostling around, they can get into each other’s hair and may turn out to be more an impediment than a help. This is precisely the situation at the moment that mars the prospect of the Asian nations pulling together. Groupings and initiatives are sprouting like mushrooms in an uncoordinated manner militating against connectivity, inclusiveness, productive functional cooperation or any possibility of economic and financial integration.

Here is a recounting of the numerous cooks stirring the broth: The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and Korea), ASEAN+6 (India, China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand, with Russia and the US clamouring to have entry), the ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), not to mention the East Asian Summit that met at Hua Hin at Thailand on November 6, floating its own proposals for Asian Economic Community, East Asian Community, Asian Regional Trade Agreement, the India-ASEAN Round Table and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia.

Chance and Challenge

Seven years ago, the then Thai Prime Minister, Mr.Thaksin Shinawatra, threw his hat too in the ring and convened an Asian Cooperation Dialogue which faded away after a glitzy start, but it can take credit for a resonating recital by the Prime Minister of the reasons behind Asia not pulling its full weight befitting a future dispenser of the world’s destiny: “Asia has not been able to forge the basic understanding and the will to use our dynamism, our talents, our own markets and skills in order to create mutual benefit from our combined potential, either as individual nations or as a region on the world scene. Asia therefore needs to forge a common strategy to build from the vast resources of manpower, wealth of skills, and dynamism in order to overcome the challenges of the new century. We must learn to trust, confide and work together for our mutual benefits, not viewing one another as competitors, but rather as partners and allies…. it is within our power to return to our former days of prosperity by combining our diverse strengths for one another’s benefit.”

Here is a chance as well as a challenge for India, China, Japan and Korea, as Asia’s four leading players with political and economic clout, to link arms and by using their combined resources and influence, spearhead a supreme effort for fusing all the existing multifarious, mutually enervating contrivances into a new architecture, say, of a United States of Asia, of coopetition (cooperation and competition blended together) that will invest the 21st Century with the character of an Asian Century. This will essentially involve distilling the essence of all the extant charters into a unified and integrated mechanism, building into it functional, financial, commercial, trade, investment and security protocols for mobilisation of resources, talents, techniques and facilities for promoting economic development, broadening areas of cooperation, resolving conflicts, combating threats to security, stability and independence, and maintaining peace and harmony.

The essential pre-requisite for this is for India, China, Japan and Korea themselves to set an example as nations which put a premium on the solemnly binding attributes of vision, values, friendship, understanding and accommodation.

(Address by Mr B.S.Raghavan (IAS-Retd), former Adviser to the UN , at a seminar on “21se Century Asia- Emerging symbiotic Relations among India,Japan, China and South Korea,”, organised by the Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chennai, on 7 November 2009).

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