Predicting the Unpredictable

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Predicting the Unpredictable

China’s rise is only the most remarkable of the many extraordinary stories of Asia’s emergence, says Jason Miks in the first in a special series of essays on the Asia-Pacific’s future.

The sleepy town of St. Austell in the British county of Cornwall wasn’t quite where I expected to hear the world being put to rights. But over a traditional English breakfast in a small bed and breakfast this summer that’s just what I overheard.

“I don’t think we have a very good future. We just can’t compete with them,” lamented one woman, who I guessed was in her late 60s. “I know. We don’t spend anything on training, on apprenticeships. So they send the jobs there instead,” replied her companion.

“Them” were the Chinese. “There” was China. And, even in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, the extraordinary rise of the People’s Republic apparently looms large in people’s consciousness.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the Middle Kingdom, and more often than not when I speak with people about China, it’s with a sense of resignation and worry that they explain their take on what its rise means for their country.

I was born in the United States, but living in Japan for almost six years I never quite found the time to travel back there. When I finally did earlier this year, I was surprised to hear even the most measured of friends and acquaintances use a word I don’t think they would have when I had last been there, in 2005 – “scared.”

Why? It wasn’t just because of China’s growing military prowess, although war-weary Americans appear to be fully aware of the limits of what even the most powerful armed forces the world has ever seen can achieve. More, it was a sense that somehow, as stories of how the United States’ increasingly rickety infrastructure is crumbling proliferate, and as unemployment remains stubbornly close to double-digits, that the center of global economic gravity is shifting eastward.

And they’re right, of course. Decades of remarkable economic growth mean Asia now accounts for 27 percent of global GDP, according to the Asian Development Bank, which expects the region’s share to increase further still – to half the global total in 2050, at $148 trillion. 

But just as China’s increasing dominance on the global stage marks a return to a position it held centuries ago, so Asia’s growing share of global wealth marks a return to the past. After all, in the middle of the 18th century, Asia accounted for 58 percent of the global economy, a share that gradually slid as the West underwent its Industrial Revolution. Rapid development in the West saw Asia’s share of GDP tumble to around 15 percent by 1952.

In a very real sense, then, what we’re seeing isn’t so much extraordinary, but getting back to the ordinary. Yet this two century swing away from Asia, and the single century swing back, masks some perhaps even more remarkable numbers. And China, as the West Country breakfast conversation underscored, is arguably responsible for the most remarkable numbers of all.

The raw figures for what is now the second-largest economy in the world speak for themselves. Guangdong Province, the most populous and richest province in China, had a gross domestic product of $665 billion last year, meaning that if it were a country, it would be one of the 20 largest in the world in terms of GDP. If the same calculation were done for Shanghai, China’s most dynamic city would be the 34th largest economy in the world, placing it ahead of Finland. Thirty years of double-digit growth have lifted by some measures about 500 million Chinese out of poverty, in the process providing enough disposable income for 900 million – nearly two thirds of the population –to own a cell phone.

So is the rapid development that economic reforms have unleashed all thanks to a Communist Party master plan? Gordon Chang, in our first essay, thinks not.

“The world credits the diminutive Deng Xiaoping for the startling transformation of Chinese society.  We believe, according to the universal narrative, that his dictatorial state first debated, then planned, and finally decreed change,” Chang writes. “Yet reform, in reality, progressed more by disobedience than design.”

“China has enjoyed an ‘economic miracle’ largely because desperate peasants and frustrated bureaucrats openly made themselves into plucky entrepreneurs.  By ignoring central government decrees, they built large and small private businesses and changed the Chinese economy beyond recognition.”

Chang concludes with a statement that rings true for anyone that has visited China, and certainly anyone that has visited the country more than once and witnessed the breakneck pace of change – “In China today, almost anything is possible.” And this increasingly includes, it seems, an ability and desire to reach for the stars – quite literally.

At a time when the United States has retired the last of its iconic Space Shuttle fleet (leaving it with no homegrown means for getting its astronauts into orbit), China is becoming increasingly bold in its stellar endeavors.

As David Axe notes in the second essay in our series, last year marked the first time since the mid-1990s that another country had matched the United States in sheer number of successful rocket launches. That country, of course, was China. And it has continued to go from strength to strength.

Chinese achievements in space in recent years have included the launch of its first unmanned lunar orbiter, Chang'e-1, in 2007, a third manned Shenzhou mission and a spacewalk. Future plans include a manned lunar mission in 2017. The problem in U.S. eyes is that there’s more to China’s interest in space than advancing scientific understanding. Many argue that walking hand-in-hand with China’s civil advances in space is the People’s Liberation Army.

“Whoever controls the universe controls our world; whoever controls space controls initiative in war,” wrote Maj. Gen. Liu Jixian of the PLA Academy of Military Science. The PLA, Axe argues, “seems to view space as the ultimate expression of the most ancient of tactics: holding the high ground to boost one’s defenses, field of fire, view of the battlefield and line of sight to neighboring friendly forces.”

Certainly, China’s killing of a weather satellite in January 2007 has only stoked such fears. The destruction of China’s polar orbit satellite, more than 500 miles above the Earth’s surface, was the first known successful satellite intercept test since the United States did something similar in 1985. In technological terms, it was a remarkable achievement. But it was also one that drew widespread international condemnation, not least because of the mass of debris that resulted from the destruction of the satellite. The Chinese were quick to claim that the test didn’t represent a threat, and was by no means a statement of its intentions. But to many in the United States and elsewhere it seemed exactly that.

Is China really on a collision course with the United States? At the start of last year, it looked almost as if a United States distracted by Afghanistan and Iraq was giving up on Asia altogether. Indeed, a feature that ran in The Diplomat’s start of year special in 2010 didn’t seem at all at odds with the prevailing mood when it asked if the “Sun is to Set on the US role in the Asia-Pacific.”

But as leading China scholar Minxin Pei notes in his essay, “just as the decline of American influence in East Asia appeared to be an iron-clad fact and an irreversible trend, something remarkable happened.” What exactly? According to Pei, it was a combination of deft diplomatic maneuvers and Chinese mis-steps that allowed the United States to once again reassert its influence in the region.

That U.S. influence was indeed waning, Pei and many others are in no doubt of. The Chinese dragon had embarked on a patient charm offensive, with its officials paying numerous visits to neighboring capitals and lavishing key countries with promises of investment. In 1997, the United States was the biggest trading partner for all countries in East Asia. But by 2009, China had become the largest trading partner for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. 

That first year Pei selected wasn’t plucked out of the air. It was the year of the Asian financial crisis, which started in Thailand before going on to tear through the region, prompting fears of a global meltdown. As many Chinese officials see it, the event was a watershed in China’s relationship with the region. As stock markets around the region came under pressure, China earned praise for refraining from devaluing its currency, as well as for the aid and loans it offered to ease the pain of its neighbors. It marked a shift from hard to soft power, and much ink has been spilled on the many manifestations this approach has come in – from big dollops of foreign assistance to countries such as Laos and Vietnam, to the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, to the proliferation of Confucius Institutes – all wrapped up in non-interference packaging.

But if 1997 really was a watershed, why did it take more than a decade for the United States to respond to China’s diplomatic advances in the Asia-Pacific? It’s hard not to think that the distraction of two enormously expensive wars played a role in the United States taking its eye off the ball. The conflict in Iraq and all its rights and wrongs is beyond the scope of these essays, which are focused firmly on the Asia-Pacific. But even the so-called “good” war, namely the conflict in Afghanistan, has had profound implications not just for U.S. policy in Central and South Asia, but also for the broader Asia region.

The hard numbers alone make clear why for a cash-strapped United States, which came perilously close this summer to saying it wouldn’t fulfill its debt obligations, the war in Afghanistan has taken its toll. As Robert Dreyfuss writes for us in his look at the future of Afghanistan, the White House has “plugged in a meaningless figure of $50 billion per year for Afghanistan. (But unless it) envisions a very rapid withdrawal of American forces, the cost of the war in 2013 and beyond is likely to far exceed $50 billion.”

According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, as of June this year, the war in Afghanistan had cost the United States more than $440 billion and more than 1,500 American servicemen’s lives. And for what? “A decade after the conference in Bonn that created the framework for the current Afghan government, the regime has lost virtually all credibility,” Dreyfuss writes. “Its usefulness is long since gone, and if anything it is an obstacle to progress going forward…For too long the United States has failed to engage in a robust regional diplomatic effort, and it has held fast to the ever more discredited notion that military forces can weaken the Taliban and force it to the table.”

It’s a bleak outlook after a decade of conflict in this most troubled of Central Asia’s “stans.” But as Joshua Kucera notes in his overview of the future of Central Asia, Afghanistan is far from alone in its troubles.

“Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the promise that the five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – once showed has dimmed significantly,” Kucera opens.

With so much attention focused on the bloodshed in Afghanistan, it’s perhaps inevitable that international attention and commentary has focused largely on the U.S.-led operation against the Taliban. And when Central Asia has featured, it has frequently been as a pawn in a so-called new Great Game of influence being fought between the United States, Russia and China. Indeed The Diplomat has run such stories itself.

There is, of course, far more to the region than that. Yet while part of Afghanistan’s current plight stems from a weak and ineffectual leader, in Central Asia, presidents rule absolutely, with opposition political parties either toothless or banned.

“Parliaments are rubber stamps, while independent media and civil society groups are small and weak if they are allowed to exist at all,” Kucera writes. “Such an environment means that no institutional means exist for transferring power upon the death or departure of a ruler, with the only options then being backroom dealing by elites to choose a new leader – or violent struggle as outsiders try to seize the reins of power.”

And the upshot of this? Stagnation and corruption. In Uzbekistan, for example, Islam Karimov has ruled the country for two decades with brutal discipline. The result has been a nation that is consistently rated among the worst in the world in terms of political freedom and civil liberties. There’s little to speak of in terms of political opposition or civil society groups, and what Kucera describes as the greatest potential institutional threat to state power – Islam – has been “thoroughly co-opted by the state. Karimov, thus, has left no political space for any challenger or potential heir to his power.”

But Karimov isn’t alone in eliminating potential opposition. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has also led his country since 1990, has managed to do virtually the same. But unlike Karimov, he has done so to a large extent with carrots rather than sticks. Per capita GDP there has climbed to $11,800, placing it on par with Eastern European countries, not Central Asian nations. This in turn has brought with it widespread satisfaction with how Nazarbayev rules. Indeed, in a poll taken by a U.S. body last year, 91 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of Nazarbayev – and less than half thought that democracy was the right form of government for Kazakhstan. These are numbers that any world leader would be delighted with, and which none others manage to achieve. Except, of course, North Korea’s late “Dear Leader.”

In the country’s most recent parliamentary election, Kim Jong-il secured almost 100 percent support in what the election committee claimed was a 99.98 percent turnout. No one believes the numbers, but the real figure is anyone’s guess. There are few places in the world where the international media has to rely on the recollections of a former sushi chef to garner some sort of understanding about the leadership succession. And there are few biographers of a world leader who would admit to me that about the only thing we know about the inner workings of that country’s politics is that we know nothing at all.

All this would be of little consequence, indeed could be seen as mildly amusing, if the country involved wasn’t nuclear-armed. But its Pyongyang’s membership of this exclusive global club that means it’s essential that policymakers at least try to get to grips with North Korea – and where it might head under the youthful Kim Jong-un.

Questions abound whether Kim Jong-il’s youngest son has been able to consolidate sufficient support to really lead his country – his father, after all, was groomed for two decades. With this in mind, North Korea’s neighbors are watching anxiously to see if Kim Jong-un will be tempted to flex North Korea’s military muscles in an effort to rally support and show who is in charge.

One country that will be watching particularly closely is Japan, whose ties with Pyongyang have been awkward at best, not least because of North Korea’s decision to send a missile sailing over Japan as part of its test of a Taepodong- 2.

Still, for now at least, the biggest dangers to Japan’s future come from inside, not out. A country that had already lost its way politically was rocked by not one disaster, but three in March. The magnitude 9 earthquake that struck northeast Japan on March 11 resulted in a tsunami. The tsunami then knocked out the generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, leading to a desperate scramble at the plant to prevent a nuclear meltdown.

More than 20,000 people were confirmed dead or missing, most of whom were killed in the tsunami, which washed away whole towns. Anyone in Japan that day will remember where they were and what they were doing. I know I will – I was about to walk back to my office in Tokyo when I felt it. Earthquakes aren’t the least bit unusual in Japan, the most earthquake prone country in the world. But no one I spoke to had felt anything like this. Usually when you are walking around outside you don’t even notice a small tremor – it’s the rattling glasses, doors or lampshades indoors that usually give it away. But on March 11, the ground outside felt like it was swaying, enough that during the first big aftershock it was necessary to steady yourself.

But as the news crews left, and as the stories of the Japanese public’s extraordinary grace under pressure started to fade from the international headlines, the country was again left to confront the problems that a long stagnating economy and political process had created.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Japan appeared to be taking on (or even over) the whole world. Books about Japan as Number 1 filled the shelves, while CEOs pored over the pages to work out how they could apply the lean, just-in-time management techniques of Toyota to their own firms. Real estate prices in Japan, meanwhile, soared – at one point the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo was estimated to be worth slightly more than the entire state of California.

Fast forward 20 years, and Japan’s economy is no longer looked upon by outsiders with wonder. But if the past two decades have been about Japan’s declining influence, the past few years have been not just about China’s rise, but also India’s. While Japan is seeing its population contract, India’s is still growing. Its most populous province, Uttar Pradesh, has a population greater than the whole of Brazil (196 million compared with 192 million). And unlike Japan’s greying population, India’s has been getting younger – 30 percent of India’s population is under 15 years-old.

Since economic liberalization took place in 1991, a growing population has also been matched by a rapidly growing economy – India’s is now the tenth largest in the world (although GDP per capita was a lowly 129th, according to the International Monetary Fund). This growing economic clout has brought with it heightened policy expectations, including over foreign policy. Can India fulfill the promise that its dynamic and diverse nation has presented?

According to UNESCO Peace Chair Madhav Nalapat, North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations are keenly interested in the answer to this question. Indeed, according to Nalapat, the prospects are high for a strategic alliance between India and the NATO powers.

“This writer had in 1997, after the Hong Kong handover, predicted the imminent emergence of China as the next superpower, and while that assertion was met with skepticism when it was first made, the subsequent trajectory of China has reinforced the forecast that the challenge to the primacy of the NATO powers will come from  China,” Nalapat writes for us. “In such a context, it would have made sense for Beijing to enhance the range and depth of its contacts with India. However, as yet, India has remained a much lower priority for the Communist Party than some of its sub-continental neighbors. Hence, the efforts of the NATO powers to craft an alliance with Delhi are taking place almost by default.”

As China’s ties with the United States and Southeast Asia have begun to sour, so have ties with India, perhaps inevitable considering Beijing appears to see it as diplomatically prudent to offer succor to India’s traditional rival, Pakistan. It’s a relationship that’s viewed with suspicion in Delhi, and it’s not only the conspiracy minded that believe that Beijing is quite deliberately trying to tie India down in its own backyard by supporting Pakistan.

But the challenges to India’s security aren’t just external, but internal as well. For years, India has been grappling with an insurgency that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as India’s “greatest internal security challenge.” Last April, Naxalites launched their largest ever assault against Indian forces, killing 76 security personnel in the process. And their revolutionary influence appears to have spread, with Naxalite groups said to be active in at least 40 percent of the country.

India isn’t the only country in the region facing an insurgency. As Filipino lawmaker and ASEAN Beat blogger Mong Palatino notes, Philippine President Benigno Aquino was only 8 years-old when the Maoist-inspired Communist Party of the Philippines was established in 1968 in a remote village. But 42 years later, as Aquino was elected president of the republic, the communist insurgency is still thriving, and it continues to be the country’s top security threat.

The Communist party believes it has thrived for so long because of the direct and indirect support of farmers who sympathize with its cause, especially with its land reform program. But Palatino notes that even according to the Party’s own website, it isn’t yet on the threshold of clinching victory in the country. Instead, Palatino notes, “It claims to be operating at the strategic defensive phase of the protracted people’s war. Its armed forces, though much smaller than the military, are strategically scattered throughout the archipelago. In short, the armed rebellion led by the Communist Party is neither winning nor losing at the moment.”

Aquino has pledged to end within six years what is now the world’s longest insurgency, and he has apparently staked his legacy on whether he can achieve this. “In numerous speeches, Aquino has said he wants to leave a peaceful society when he steps down in 2016,” Palatino says. “He should not lose sight of this vision, since the temptation to ignore the overtures of peace is always present.”

But while India’s security challenges can’t be described as solely external, the Philippines certainly aren’t just internal. This year has seen tensions with China bubble to the surface as a long-running territorial row with China over the South China Sea has once again grabbed headlines. With this in mind, the government in Manila might envy the relative calm that Australia finds itself facing in its regional ties.

As the Kevin Rudd administration noted in its 2009 Defense White Paper:

“The enduring reality of our strategic outlook is that Australia will most likely remain, by virtue of our geostrategic location, a secure country over the period to 2030. We are distant from traditional theatres of conflict between the major powers, and there is an absence of any serious, enduring disputes with our neighbors that could provide a motive for an attack.”

But even geographically isolated Australia isn’t immune from the influence of the shifting tides of power in Asia, as Sam Roggeveen notes in his essay.

“Australia’s security and international standing has always been built on an important convergence: throughout Australia’s history, its major economic partner has also been a major strategic partner, or at least a significant client of one,” Roggeveen writes. “From white settlement until the middle of World War II, it was Great Britain which filled both roles. Then it was the United States, and from the 1970s onward, Japan became Australia’s major trading partner.”

But the rising China narrative is, he says, overturning this prolonged period of certainty. “Australia’s major economic partner, China, now has a number of foreign policy interests which are, at best, misaligned with those of our major strategic partner, the United States. At worst, these interests are in direct conflict, with uncertain consequences for the region.”

Does this mean that dangerous instability is inevitable? Not necessarily, Roggeveen says, arguing that Australia has a potentially vital role to play as power shifts in the Asia-Pacific by reinforcing “international society.” If it can play the game right, Canberra can ensure “that the raw contest for power is ameliorated.”

“It’s said that the purpose of a well-functioning international order is to manage strategic competition,” he says. “And while that is true, it does not exhaust the subject. The deeper purpose of international society is to tame or sublimate the power contest.”

Our final essay is by Chinese high school teacher Jiang Xueqin. It seems an appropriate way of conclude for a number of reasons.

First, there is the subject matter – a look at the prospects for the current wave of Chinese students – an estimated 128,000 – that have made the United States their home for study.

“American colleges, because of their expensive tuition and the United States’ tight visa restrictions, remained a distant dream to many Chinese undergraduates up until 2004,” he writes. “With the Chinese economy soaring, the U.S. government relaxed visa restrictions, and American colleges and universities began recruiting in China.  Today, with China’s economy still purring and America’s now sagging, Chinese students promise to be a feature on many American colleges and universities.”

This paragraph encapsulates neatly the eastward shift in global power, but also hints at the prospects for better understanding between the world’s leading powers. Conflict is often (though not always) a product of misunderstanding or simply ignorance, so it can only be hoped that the growing engagement of young Chinese in the U.S. education system can foster better understanding between Asia’s two great powers.

And ultimately, it’s a better understanding of the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific that these essays are aimed at providing, which is why Jiang’s essay is important for another reason – it allows the region to speak for itself. This series of essays has been selected as each of the writers either hails from Asia or else has significant experience working in the region.  Such on-the-ground experience and insights are invaluable in trying to understand the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, and where it might be heading.

Of course this can only be a start. Asia has never before been in a situation such as it faces today – a fading but still significant power in Japan being met with two rapidly rising nations in the form of China and India. Throw into the mix the strongest military in the Pacific – that of the United States – and it’s easy to see why the awe over the speed of Asia’s ascent is often tempered by uncertainty.

“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” baseball philosopher Yogi Berra is believed to have said. We can only hope that having read the essays in this series, readers will at least feel a little better armed to try.