Eight years ago, as part of an international programme for journalists, I ended up becoming friends with a Japanese colleague, Sayuri Daimon. Both, Sayuri and her husband, Sakai, were globally travelled and well-informed. Yet, they startled me one day when Sayuri stated, and Sakai seconded, that Asia consisted only of Japan, China and other South-East Asian countries.
While the Indian in me bristled at what I was brought up to believe in—that India was part of the grouping called Asia—the rational part of me sought to explore the claim. I polled the group, and almost all the 24 international and American fellows answered likewise. It was also the popular perception in the US, where our fellowship resided.
But that was then.
India, now a trillion dollar economy, is beginning to be known less for its extreme conditions of poverty and more for its prowess with information technology and breeding an aggressive set of upstarts, such as the Tatas, Mahindras, Reliance Industries, and so on. In fact, the Western media has stopped stereotypical references such as “Hindu India” (as facetious as referring to the US as “Christian”) despite the presence of 140 million Muslims and a Constitution that includes secularism as a key pillar of the country’s democratic principles. India is now very much a part of the Asian lexicon, and the focus of international debates.
Rivals: Allen Lane, 336 pages, Rs795.
Asia now encompasses all countries east of Iran, excluding Australia and New Zealand, and accounts for almost half the world’s population, one-fifth of the world gross domestic product, almost 30% of world exports and one-third of global capital flows.
Three countries, Japan, China and India, also referred to as the past, present and future powers, are the key to this region’s prospects: They will at once be in opposition to each other and at the same time, given their growing economic inter-linkages, offer great opportunity, not only to each other, but also to the world.
In fact, this is the thesis of Bill Emmott’s book: Rivals—How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade.
As the momentum shifts from the West, the prospects for the next phase of global growth are presaged on whether Asia manages to tap its potential. Emmott, former editor of The Economist, in his very lucid and compelling style, details this promise and the underlying risks as these three countries, simultaneously for the first time, go about charting their unique trajectories. The best thing about the book is that it is not one of those rah-rah narratives, but an objective analysis that spells out the combined potential of these countries. It also details the risks that could deny the troika its legitimate “tryst with destiny”.
Japan, which preceded both China and India on the growth curve, has, since the turn of this century, recovered from the ill effects of the financial collapse of the early 1990s. Having cleaned up the financial sector, and now armed with a more aggressive foreign policy stance, it is once again ready to assert itself.
Just as Japan went under, China emerged as the pre-eminent economic force in the region. However, in the process, it has, to pursue its economic objectives, begun to posture aggressively in the region and elsewhere in the world. Japan is also beset with internal challenges: growing political dissent within the country and structural fault lines developing around its shaky financial sector.
Similarly, India, propelled by circumstances as well as economic reforms, is beginning to gather momentum. It has begun to acquire a new self-confidence and pragmatism in our foreign policy (though not when it comes to dealing with its smaller neighbours, such as Nepal and Bangladesh).
As Emmott puts it: “By the end of the next decade, there should be virtually no country in the world that does not believe that India matters a great deal. That is already true of China. It will soon be true of India, too.” This, however, as Emmott cautions, will pan out subject to the three countries overcoming certain challenges.
A most pressing issue is mitigating damage to the environment; the days of reckless development are over. Yet, development is imperative if poverty is to be eradicated. How China and India deal with this vexing issue will eventually shape the debate on climate change.
Tokyo’s turnaround: Emmott believes Japan is ready to assert itself in the world order once again. (Bloomberg)
Implicit in this is a more troubling question; and one not flagged by Emmott. Is the world really ready to guarantee those living under the poverty line a better life? Even improving their current circumstances, let alone bringing them on a par with the “haves”, would entail an enormous investment of resources—and to do so without risking the environment, implies sacrificing other areas of development.
Rivals also flags the risks of conflict between the three—especially given the history of skirmishes, unresolved border disputes and competition for scarce resources. The trigger could be Tibet (the prescient author wrote about this in 2007), North Korea, Pakistan or even Myanmar. Undoubtedly, it would put Asia behind by decades if such an untoward development were to transpire.
As Emmott puts it so succinctly, the opportunity for Asia abounds, especially at a time when the hegemony of the West, particularly the US, is on the decline. The world is moving towards a more democratic framework, which empowers more countries, but also bestows upon them the responsibility of power. So, it won’t just be about how Japan, China and India deal with the next decade—it will be about how all inheritors deal with the new world order.