Asia’s Leaders and Economic Soft Power

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Asia’s Leaders and Economic Soft Power

‘There is merit in exploring the potential of a collective soft power identity for Asia.’

Asia’s Leaders and Economic Soft Power
Credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Indonesia has elected Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as its new president. He joins the ranks of new Asian leaders such as Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Shinzo Abe of Japan and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who with their nationalist yet outward looking growth-oriented agendas and rapid decision making are striving to redefine Asian power and identity. These countries and their new leadership could well put Asia into the driver’s seat. Not only do they represent more than one-third of the world’s population, they are also a group of fast growing economies.

With the weakening of institutions like the Doha Round of trade and the ongoing global financial disorder, there is a need for Asian leaders to join forces and take common actions to guard the region against financial and sovereign risks and maintain a strong growth trajectory. The challenge for the new Asian leadership is to find ways of collaborating in the new power balances of the 21st century and manage strategic disputes.

Asia has been experiencing a period of political turbulence and polarization, both regionally and domestically. This has posed significant challenges to the economic strength and prowess of key countries and harmed the economic prospects of the region as a whole. But with new leaders at the helm, these countries (and in turn Asia) are on the threshold of more stable domestic and political functioning as they look inwards to address demands of the people for growth and jobs.

The Rise of Leadernomics

Despite the rhetoric of territorial disputes and conflict, economic reform remains the top priority for Asian leaders. Facing impending slowdowns and lackluster economic performance, regional policymakers have sought to reinvigorate their economies with new economic reform drives such as the “three arrows” of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Abenomics, Premier Li Keqiang’s growth-centered Likonomics, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Modinomics and its focus on free markets, and what may well be a similar prescription of Jokonomics from the new Indonesian president.

With the ongoing economic malaise in the U.S. and EU, Asian nations are increasingly looking away from the West and trading among themselves instead. In some cases, Western markets are left out entirely. The biggest example of this is the China-ASEAN free-trade area, a region that includes some 1.9 billion people and about $4.5 trillion of trade in markets across Southeast Asia. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) also aims to link up the economies of ASEAN, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

This intra-regional potential can give Asian leaders the necessary impetus for collaborative economic reform and generate strong economic performance. There is an opening for this, given the persistently weak economic performance of Western nations. A recent World Bank report has posited that China is poised to overtake the U.S. and become the world’s largest economy within this year. Japan is showing signs of emerging from its years of economic slump, and India and Indonesia have their own growth potential.

The onus is on the new leadership to collaborate and mend bridges through a soft power approach with economics as a key tool. A politically and economically stronger Asia is, after all, in the best interest of these leaders. More importantly, the collective vision of these Asian leaders may perhaps metamorphose into a stepping stone towards a pan-Asian identity on the back of common economic soft power overtures.

Counter or Collaborate?

While a soft power route to an Asian collaborative landscape may appear to be a good way forward, it is important to note that much of the soft power capabilities of these Asian powers were initially developed to counter each other’s regional influence. In particular, all four powers are locked in territorial disputes, with economic soft power seen by their leaders as a key means of furthering their individual causes.

This suggests potential blowback or resistance to any exercise of economic soft power. This “dark side” of economic soft power was revealed recently in Vietnam, when large and violent demonstrations were directed against symbols of Chinese economic influence in Vietnam such as factories in industrial parks. Similarly, Japan is suspicious of Chinese efforts of balancing hard power with soft power or what is viewed as its “charm offensive.”

Yet, despite these regional tensions and confrontations, diplomatic and political interdependencies among Asian countries are on the rise. Asian diplomacy has always been more subtle and informal, based on decades of confidence-building measures and a network of personal relations among Foreign Service officers at all levels. Similarly, the exercise of soft power also tends to be more subtle, informal and fungible.

Soft power can be adapted and recombined through active collaboration, even if this is done for the sake of realist interests. It may prove to be a realist strategy for Asian countries with rising hard power, especially China, to engage in soft power collaboration vis-à-vis competition. By proving itself to be a responsible stakeholder, especially in its own backyard, China can establish much-needed space for its continued economic development.

Moreover, economic cooperation based on mutual prosperity may go a long way in fostering closer ties and goodwill, especially if the gains of such cooperation are allowed to trickle down through the economic strata. The promise of mutual gains and prosperity make up the foundations of economic soft power and will prove useful in uniting the economic and strategic goals of Asian powers.

In other words, there is merit in exploring the potential of a collective soft power identity for Asia, predicated on economic reform and interdependency.

Not only will this collective soft power identity contribute to a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, it will also allow Asian powers to jointly strive for a greater role in global governance. Asia remains underrepresented in international policy bodies and multilateral setups such as the International Monetary Fund, which are still largely dominated by the U.S. and other Western powers.

Finally, by fostering greater soft power collaboration, rising Asian powers can establish themselves as a collective global power to be reckoned with. Given the strength of Asian economies and the commitment of the new and emerging leadership to economic reform, soft power collaboration is increasingly feasible. This will allow Asia to be less dependent on the West for its regional stability and collective destiny

Suvi Dogra is Research Officer for the Geo-economics & Strategy programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Jun Jie Woo is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Opinions are their own.