By Li Xiang
Published: 2008-07-04
From Observer, page 41, issue no. 373, Jun. 23, 2008
Tranlasted by Zhang Feifei
Original article:[Chinese]

EO reporter Li Xiang traces 40 years of economic development in Asia in this two-part series. From the days Asian Drama was penned, predicting a doomed future for the region; and crossed over to the optimistic theory of Flying Geese, which foresaw the taking off of Asian economies one after another; to the current challenges facing countries like China, India and Vietnam.

Below is part two of the special focus, looking at challenges facing Asia in the post-1997 financial crisis era. 

New Asian Hemisphere
When the World Bank's report East Asian Miracle published in 1993, China was curiously absent from the research. More than a decade later, when the bank released An East Asian Renaissance in 2007, its researchers explained why China was initially omitted: "because the transition experience there (China) were considered sui generis [unique]."

Yet, China became the center of discussion in An East Asian Renaissance, which focused on the region's recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The report stated: "China is the biggest development story in the world today and a major economic presence in the region, representing one-half of developing East Asia's GDP and one-third of its exports."

Nobel laureate in Economics Amartya Sen once quoted writer and poet Kipling in describing the rise of the Chinese economy and its lessons for India: "An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay".

For a period after 1989, however, China's economy was wavering in uncertainties. The resurgence of conservatism, the holding back of international capital, and a lack of confidence among domestic entrepreneurs all contributed to the staggered pace.

It was not until Deng Xiaoping's visit to the south in 1992 that hopes were renewed amongst Chinese reformists. At the time, Napoleon Bonaparte's prophecy was cited again and again – "There lies a sleeping lion, let it sleep, for when China wakes, it will shake the world".

China marched forward as it opened its door further; it joined the WTO, a mass of foreign direct investment poured in, and joint ventures flourished. Compared to days when South Korean and Japanese economies were just taking off, the degree of openness of the Chinese market had surpassed them.

The seed of pragmatic thinking that Deng sowed in the communist regime had led to government promotion of entrepreneurship, encouraging its people to pursue material wealth, and a new business class not unlike Akio Morita began to emerge in China. Chinese companies were aspiring to become the world's best, just like when Sony, Toyota, Nissan and Samsung experienced boom years.

In the eyes of western multinational companies, China was a country with one billion consumers; but if viewed from another perspective, China could also be a country with one billion entrepreneurs.

Farmers from remote villages swarmed into the cities, or they set up companies in their hometowns. The vitality of a billion-strong entrepreneurs fueled China's high GDP growth, which for 30 consecutive years maintained between 8% and 10%. These were conservative figures after taking into consideration of a variety of factors, opined former editor of Economist Bill Emmott, who pointed out that though China's growth was impressive, it was not unique like many believed.

China was only a jumbo-sized goose that had joined the flying geese team, which had many other outstanding members onboard – Taiwan's GDP maintained around 8% for 40 years; Singapore recorded an average of 9% growth between the 1960s and 1970s and around 8% for the next 20 years; Japan too retained high growth rate for 25 years straight without interruption.     

Also worth mentioning is that China was no exception in its development model. Low-end labor intensive industries were being transferred from neighboring countries into China, and massive flows of FDI flooded the country, making it the second largest FDI target after the United States. This prompted Harvard Business School professor Huang Yasheng, like many others, to express concern over China's economy being overly dependent on FDI.

China encouraged an export-oriented economy and set up numerous special economic zones. Corporate strategist Kenichi Ohmae once applauded that China contained dozens of Singapores. Mirroring the experience of Morita first visited the US and Europe decades ago, many Chinese entrepreneurs today were aggrieved that "made-in-China" had become synonymous with cheapskate goods and inferiority. They too wished Chinese companies would become globalized businesses like Sony, and carved out a share in the US and Europe markets.

The above development model continues to replicate and radiate to neighboring countries to this day, such as Vietnam, which has closely watched China's path to become a rising nation.

In 2007, the World Bank repeated history by excluding India when researching for An East Asian Renaissance, though by then, India was already growing aggressively. It was in India's Bangalore that writer Thomas Friedman realized "the world is flat". India was the next big development story of the region.

Since launching economic reforms in the 1990s, India has strived for an economic take off like China. It might have dropped out of the World Bank's report thanks to its unique development – less than impressive FDI, and unenthusiastic export-oriented industries. Yet, India has become increasingly similar to the East Asia model, as Emmott pointed out the path India was taking presently was somewhat alike to what China took in the 1990s.    

The New Asian Hemisphere has been coined by Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean of School of Lee Kuan Yew under National University of Singapore, to refer to the rapidly rising region.

In his latest book, New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the east published in 2008, Mahbubani expatiated why Asia rose up and argued that countries in this region should enjoy a greater say in global affairs.

Kishore Mahbubani, an ethnic Indian Singaporean, was one of Asia's most well-known diplomats in the 1990s. His first book Can Asians Think? Earned him international acclaims. He is considered as one of the most prestigious intellectual from the region, discussing international affairs and Asian issues.

He is also an advocate and defender of Asian values, which Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad put forward to counter western values oriented criticisms launched at a rapidly developing Asia.

Mahbubani said all the Asian nations marching on the economic highway - including Japan, the east Asian tigers (Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore), China, India and others – shared seven pillars of wisdom. The pillars were a free market economy, science and technology, enlightened leaders, the rule of law, peace-loving culture, pragmatism and emphasis on education.

In the views of Kishore Mahbubani, the elites from these Asian countries were special – as they were raised by a mixture of cultures, including local customs, Confucianism, and western education.

"From Confucius to Kennedy" was how he once described the elites of this region. He believed Confucianism had taught the elites to place importance on education and become peace-loving, while Kennedy's optimism and pragmatism also had an impact on them.

Economists in general summed up the common traits in Asian economies' development model as export-oriented economic policies, substantial FDI and high domestic savings.

Kishore Mahbubani, however, observed that these countries depended on strong political figures to kick start economic development, such as Deng Xiaoping of China, Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan, Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia. Similarly, the economic reform of Vietnam was launched by General Vo Van Kiet.

A Fragile Region?
The Vietnamese economic reform, or Doi Moi, came in 1986, leading to market liberalization and milder foreign policy. Subsequently, it underwent a similar transition process in China.

In 1995, it joined the Southeast Asian grouping ASEAN and restore diplomatic relationship with the US; in 2000, it set up its first stock exchange and encouraged the development of private businesses; in 2006, it hosted an APEC summit, the premier economic forum for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region; and the following year, it joined the WTO.

This small Southeast Asia nation strived to emulate its neighbors in developing its economy and ridding poverty. In 2008, however, it faced enormous problems following years of rapid development.

In fact, its former Prime Minister Vo Von Kiet once wrote an open letter to the current Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in 2007, saying that Vietnam had made the same fatal mistakes committed by South Korea, Malaysia and neighboring countries prior to the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The worries expressed by Vo were partly translated into reality the following year - Vietnamese stock indexes plummeted more than 60%, its inflation rate surpassed 25 %, its currency was under tremendous pressure to devaluate and the possibility of massive foreign capital pull-out mounted. 

When reflecting on the lessons learned from the 1997-98 financial crisis a decade later, Financial Times deputy editor-in-chief Martin Wolf wrote in his column: "The Asians decided to choose competitive exchange rates, export-led growth and huge accumulations of foreign currency reserves."
He continued: "Now the east Asian emerging economies are mostly creditor nations... the foreign currency reserves of east and south Asian countries had reached $3,280bn (by Feb 2007), up by $2,490bn since the beginning of 1999.

"While a substantial accumulation of reserves seemed a justified (if expensive) form of insurance in the aftermath of the crisis, today's levels look excessive. In most east Asian economies the ratio of reserves to short-term foreign currency debt is four or five to one."

The impressive level of foreign reserves had given faith to some market observers, who believed Asian nations would be more prepared today if a massive withdrawal of foreign capital occurred, and that the present economic turbulences in Vietnam would not pose a real threat to the region.

Nevertheless, Vietnam's road to economic prosperity remained bumpy. A report published earlier this year by The Economist listed possible challenges facing Vietnam as inflation, free trade, domestic competition to further marginalize disadvantaged social groups, a tumbling stock market, natural disasters (from the bird flu to floods), and bottlenecks in human resources and infrastructure, amongst others.

From a larger perspective, the malady in Vietnam did not carry enough weight to shake or threaten the region's prosperity and development. The major influence lied in the evolving inter-relationships played out between the region's three giants – China, India and Japan – and the world's sole superpower, the US.   

China, India and Japan all made it to the world's top ten biggest economies. Though the former two were still feasting on their high-paced development, the journey to prosperity was far from smooth sailing, just like Vietnam.

The problem, or rather the key question, facing China today was whether or not the great economic success would lead to reforms in other fields. With the openness of minds for economic development, would it trigger corresponding social and political reforms? Would the enlarging new elites class demand new rights? Would these subsequent changes destabilize economic development? Would China's increasing appetite for resources lead to conflicts with the US or other western nations?

India's problem lied in its competency to draw investment against the backdrop of poor infrastructure and bloated bureaucracy. Its government also appeared to be weak in pushing for economic reform, for example, when it announced to establish special economic zone, the public responded with demonstrations and protests. In addition, what would be the capacity of this world's largest democracy in dealing with a widening wealth gap if high growth continued?

The good news though, is that the US and Japan would stand firmly by India, in the hopes that India's rise would somewhat strike a balance in the region as China reared its head.

Meanwhile, Japan was still locking heads with China and South Korea over historical issues, which greatly weakened Japan's influence in the region. Moreover, with the rise of China and India, with their home appliances and automobiles starting to infiltrate global markets, Japan urgently needed fresh industrial orientation and a new growth launch pad like the United States found in the Internet in the 1990s.

The observant Emmott had noticed that never had Asia experienced having three big powers coexisting at the same time like now. Moreover, the relationships between these three nations were far from harmonious; China, India and Japan all had historical disputes. Emmott had compared their coexistent relationships to Britain, France and Germany in the first half of the 20th century.

In addition, Asia is a region with many sensitive zones – the Sino-India border, North Korea, the East China Sea, the Diaoyu Islands, as well as Taiwan and Pakistan. Each of these sensitive zones could potentially trigger major conflicts, and destabilize the region.

China will host the Olympic Games in August 2008. At this crucial juncture, China has been sparing no effort in creating a harmonious atmosphere at home and abroad. Diplomatically, Chinese has adopted a friendlier and smiley persona to convey a peace-loving and responsible image befitting a big nation.
However, the Olympic Games has also presented an opportunity for certain parties to exert political pressure on China, which at the same time faced with risks of economic downturn, inflationary pressure, and a weakening stock market.  Though radical changes – be it socio-economically or politically – would not be expected, the emerging conflicts and hidden uncertainties had already put the authorities on the alert.

Emmott had regarded US President George W. Bush's initiative to warming up to India as a comparable move to President Richard Nixon's opening-up the door for China. Both presidents had rightly taken the initiatives in strategizing their responses on newly emerging powers. President Bush's move in providing unprecedented military and economic support to a big country signaled an attempt to balance China's influence in this region.

Rivalry between the Big three was demonstrated in their contention for influence in the region. For example, despite calls from various parties for more Asian countries to play greater role in global affairs, China proved to be reluctant in supporting India and Japan to becoming permanent members of the United Nation's Security Council.

Forty years have passed since Gunner Myrdal published the Asian Drama. Contrary to Myrdal's projection of an Asia riddled by over population, poverty and failed governments, more and more Asian countries have joined the flying geese team.

On August 14, 1947, the eve of India's independence, Jawaharlal Nehru declared: "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity."

Nehru's declaration was also the heartfelt aspiration for all other Asians. However, destiny spared us no time for cheering, as the road to redeem the pledges proved to have many hidden challenges. A new Asian Drama is unfolding continuously – would the plots reveal that Asian countries would have self-driven reforms, rise above the complex web of external pressure, and prevail in redemption?