Power is moving towards Asia—or so the conventional wisdom goes. But Asian leaders have been notable by their absence as a global financial crisis threatens to deteriorate into a global economic crisis. Their quiescence is dangerous. Asia holds massive foreign exchange reserves and contributes a quarter of world output. The region should play a fuller part in assuaging the fear gripping markets.
While the Japanese economy, the world’s second biggest, has been stagnating—machinery orders fell last month—it still accounts for 10% of world output. China, despite the world slowdown, is forecast to grow at 9% next year and is likely to become the world’s biggest manufacturing nation soon. The Indian economy is expected to expand by about 8% next year.
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Asia is participating in the coordinated international campaign to prevent economic disaster. Central banks in China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan cut their interest rates on Thursday. Like their Western peers, they have domestic as well as global reasons for that. Stock markets in the region have been volatile—Indonesia closed its market indefinitely on Wednesday after it dived 10% in just 90 minutes.
But the region is participating more as a follower than a leader. The main reason is political. Japan has been politically paralysed for years. China’s leaders—for all their apparent power—are ambivalent about how they deploy it on the world stage. The country recently called for a multi-currency alternative to the dollar system—but the call went largely unheeded. Attempts at developing a regional voice have made little progress.
The mismatch between Asia’s economic and political standing is a serious weakness in resolving the economic crisis—not least because the region is home to a big chunk of the world’s externally held dollars. Maybe less power has gone east than is often thought.