Time magazine’s annual list of the globe’s 100 most influential people always prompts soul-searching in Asia.
Nations keep score. Japanese media revelled in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son making the cut. Some South Korean outlets even padded the stats, claiming Kim Jong-un and American Olympic sensation Chloe Kim along with President Moon Jae-in. Kudos to India’s diaspora, with solid honorees: Bhavish Aggarwal of Ola, cricketer Virat Kohli, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and actress Deepika Padukone. And, who knows, even Leo Varadkar, by way of Ireland, too.
But my thoughts tend to focus on Asians Time forgot. Individuals playing pivotal, if unglamorous, roles in the geopolitical trajectory of the most populous and dynamic economic region.
Here are five I wish Time had included:
Liu He: While all eyes are on China’s president for life, Xi Jinping, Liu’s ability to right a listing ship may matter more to posterity. As Xi’s new reform czar, Liu must tame three huge bubbles: credit, debt and pollution. Five-plus years into his tenure, Xi is fanning Beijing’s imbalances. His anti-corruption inquisition seems more about knee-capping rivals than cleansing China Inc. Otherwise, he’d loosen press and internet freedoms, not turn China into more of a black box.
Enter Liu, who’s charged with ensuring China’s underlying fundamentals support Xi’s ambitious plans for overseas dominance. That means shaking up state-owned enterprises, shining daylight on shadow banks and caring more about the quality of growth than the quantity. Humankind has much riding on Liu succeeding in an economy on track to dwarf America’s.
Anthony Tan: Go ahead and toast Uber, but South-East Asians can be plenty proud of Grab, the Singapore car-booking juggernaut Tan co-founded in 2012 with Tan Hooi Ling. While Uber stays with its “barge in" strategy, Grab champions localization. Grab worked with taxi operators, rather than bankrupting them. It offered creative payment options, extended financial help to drivers, dabbled in motorbikes and was more sensitive to security worries. In 2014, SoftBank billionaire Son became Grab’s biggest investor. Just as with Alibaba in 2000, it buttressed Son’s bona fides as a savvy talent scout. But Grab is the homegrown success story South-East Asia needed. By showing vision and flexibility, Tan proved local entrepreneurs can beat Silicon Valley at its own game.
Nestor Espenilla: Ok, so the head of the Philippine central bank may seem a reach on a list including Canada’s Justin Trudeau, London’s Sadiq Khan and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. But few globalized economies are in a more tenuous state than President Rodrigo Duterte’s. Since 2016, Duterte has turned away from good-governance reforms to fight a bloody war of choice against drugs. It’s worrying credit raters, turning off investors and denting Manila’s soft power.
That puts Espenilla on the front lines. Since Espenilla took over in July, he’s been slow to hike interest rates—just as critics worried. By trying to avoid Duterte’s cross hairs, is Espenilla enabling a price surge that could foment instability? Accelerating inflation—4.3% in March—is adding to the powder-keg dynamic in a geopolitically pivotal nation. South-East Asia had better hope Espenilla gets on the case, and soon.
Haruhiko Kuroda: Not to overload Time’s list with central bankers and technocrats, but Japan is holding many strings that could upend markets and global conventional wisdom. One connects to global equities, which have gotten a nice lift since 2013 from the Bank of Japan governor’s policies. Along with flooding the world with yen, Kuroda’s Bank of Japan (BoJ) bought up 45% of the government bond market and more than 75% of the exchange-traded fund universe. Kuroda also will be the face of continuity should Abe resign. The prime minister is beset by scandals—one over cronyism, one over his sycophantic support for Donald Trump’s chaotic White House. Any moves Kuroda makes to “taper" the BoJ’s titanically large asset purchases could soon shake a bond, stock and currency market near you, and soon.
Narendra Modi: While India’s prime minister made Time’s list in 2017, he, oddly, didn’t this year or in 2016. Granted, Trump’s wacky quarrels with rivals and allies alike hoard our attention. So do Xi’s growing ambitions to build a global system with Chinese characteristics. Yet this week’s Xi-Modi tête-à-tête in central China is a look at a future few in the West can see through the trees of Trumpian chaos.How the leaders of the two most populous nations, and fastest-growing major economies, interact will dictate what kind of world Washington encounters in 2025 and beyond. And then there’s the 2019 general election. The world has a huge stake in whether Modi uses the next 12 months to accelerate moves to cut red tape, open protected sectors, reduce poverty and empower women—or rests on his laurels. Today’s 7%-plus growth is a vital window of opportunity to raise India’s economic game. Time, literally and figuratively, is not on Modi’s side.
William Pesek, based in Tokyo, is a former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.