Predicting the Unpredictable (Page 5 of 6)

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.

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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.

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