Some Aspects of the Geo-political Situation in Asia

by Feliciano V. Cariņo


I. Introduction

Some disclaimers must be made at the outset. True to the tradition of the Urban Rural Mission, the topic of concern you have designated for discussion is broad and complex. Asia is a very big and very diverse region. I am very much aware of the fact that generalizations we have made in the past in the ecumenical movement have always been inadequate, if not irrelevant, to the varieties of social and political histories, economic conditions, and cultural and religious situations that constitute the reality of Asia. Beyond this native diversity of Asia that always rebels against easy generalizations, I am also aware of how it has become much more difficult and complicated to reflect on the geo-political condition of the world. Too many things have happened so dramatically to change the economic, social and political landscape of our world and shatter so many of our previously conceived ideological and intellectual perspectives and interpretative predispositions. We are in so many ways groping like so many others in the various intellectual disciplines for interpretative frameworks of events and developments we did not anticipate.

This is the reason why the title of the presentation is phrased in the cautious form of "some aspects of the geo-political situation in Asia". This is also the reason why throughout the presentation I will be using a personal mode of expression. This is specially necessary since I come from one of the tiny islands of the Asia-Pacific region, hardly a piece of territory that can be considered as representative of the whole of Asia.

Having so indicated personal, intellectual and situational limits, what may we say concerning the geo-political situation in our "ecumenical area of responsibility?"

II. Economics Takes Command

I would like to suggest that the first, and perhaps the primary, word that must be said about our geopolitical situation is not political but economic. In saying this, I do not mean to separate economics from politics. We must all have been schooled enough in the discipline of "political economy" to know that economics is part of the substance and base of politics, and that political motivations have been and always will be primarily economic. Those of us who have read recent ecumenical discussions on the "economy as a matter of faith" must have been reminded that to separate economics from politics is neither possible nor desirable. Indeed, we know that to isolate economic factors from the broader fabric of social relations is to eschew and distort their human significance. It is ethically, in this sense, indefensible to be economistic.

Having said all of that, it must be recognized that as we came to the last decade of the 20th century, and specially to the end of 1993, the dominant news and events and the dramatic developments that have drawn world attention to our part of the world, and more specifically to the Asia Pacific Region were not news of political conflict or wars, or events of political repression and military activity, or of developments in regard to political movements, organizations and alliances but news and events of surging stock markets, bullish economies, economic growth, "eyepopping" economic activity, and of emerging regional and international economic alliances and organizations. What has made these economic developments in the Asia Pacific Region even more "eye-popping" than usual is the fact they were happening at a time when the stock-markets and the economic activities in the traditional economic centers of the world such as Japan, United States and Europe, were at best sluggish, in many instances stagnant, and in some instances even registering negative outputs. This situation was, I think, pointedly summed up by President Bill Clinton of the United States, when he noted, leading to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Seattle, that the countries of Asia have been transformed from "(falling) dominoes to (economic) dynamos."

Let me illustrate this "shift" and the transformation it signifies through a number of symbolic historical references. Around the time when the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) was in the process of formation, the politics of the Cold War burst into our midst with the eruption of the Korean War. Then, the ecumenical world was divided in the struggle between North and South Korea and the economic and political ideals which they represented. Today, people in the "north" and the "south" are talking about and pushing for "reunification" to end what is considered by many as an unfortunate and unwanted division of a people. The Korean peninsula meanwhile has been the arena of one of the "economic miracles" of our time, and considered to continue to be one of the major economic actors in our part of the world.

By the time the CCA reached its tenth anniversary as a regional ecumenical organization, the "cultural revolution" started in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and became the dominant event in the life of Asia in that period. The Red Books and the Mao caps and jackets it popularized became worldwide symbols of what was then conceived as a new economic, social and political order. Today, you cannot find a single copy of the Red Book on sale in China, and you need to go to antique shops to find a Mao cap or jacket. China meanwhile began a process of economic reforms, opened itself to a form of "market economy" and grew by a phenomenal 12.8 per cent in its Gross National Product in 1992. In the same period, the province of Guangdong, near Hong Kong, grew economically by a nearly unbelievable rate of 22 per cent. In 1993, China maintained a growth rate of nearly 13 per cent, and as 1994 begins, Chinese economic planners are worried about an ‘‘overheated economy’’ amidst predictions that the same rate of economic growth will again take place this year unless the economy is "slowed down".

Again, as the CCA began to pick up its work and develop its own social perspectives, the Vietnam War captured the imagination of people all over the world as a sign and symbol of a people’s struggle against the insurmountable odds of American imperialism and capitalist enticements. Today, despite the ravages of the Vietnam War and effects of a continuing American economic embargo, Vietnam has began to open up to international capital and has promulgated a Foreign Investment Law that is relatively liberal to foreign capital. In 1992, Vietnam grew by a "modest" rate of 7.9 per cent in its GNP, and matched the same performance in 1993. It is anticipated that Vietnam will continue to be one of the very active areas of economic growth in 1994 and beyond.

The nomenclatures and acronyms representing new configurations and alliances of regional and international cooperation and consultation underscore further this shift of attention to the economic sphere in Asian and international life. While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains active, the more well-known and oft-referred to aggrupation of European nations is now the "European Economic Community" (EEC), and the "European Common Market" (ECM). We do not hear of the Warsaw Pact any more, but we now read a lot about the Maastricht Treaty. In Southeast Asia, who still knows or recalls the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which was a political and military alliance? On the other hand, who has not heard of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is an economic association, and of the proposed ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA)? In North America, we must have all heard of the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA); and in the Asia Pacific, who still recalls the Asia Pacific Alliance (ASPAC), or the Australia, New Zealand and U.S. Alliance (ANZUS), again, all political and military alliances? But who has not heard of the APEC meeting, the last being held in Seattle, and the next to be held in Jakarta. At the end of 1993, the economic alliances and associations of nations seemingly put into oblivion the political and military alliances. The AFTAs and the NAFTAs and the APECS, all aggrupations for economic activity and effort, are now definitely the dominant aggrupations of nations. They are the ones that now hug the headlines, because they are the ones that are considered to really matter. As we move to the end of the 20th century, I suspect that these economic aggrupations will be the ones that will lead the way to our collective futures.

III. The Asia-Pacific Surge

At the heat of the economic developments that have drawn world attention is the incredible surge of the Asia Pacific economies and the increasingly definitive signs that the Asia Pacific region will soon become, if it has not already, the economic and trading center of the world. John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene in their Megatrends 2000 describe the status of the Asia Pacific rim in nearly incredulous but factual terms. Asia, they note, is now a US$3 trillion market that is growing at a rate of US$3 billion a week. The triangular area bounded by the cities of Los Angeles, Tokyo and Sydney will soon edge out as the trading center of the world the Atlantic triangle bounded by the old cities of New York, London and Paris. This possible shift is more monumental in importance than the shift that took place five hundred years ago when the economic center of the world move from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The reason for this is that in addition to its growing economic power, Asia is also the home of half of the world’s population. By the end of this century, Asia will have two thirds of the world’s population while Europe will have only six per cent. Moreover, this shift in economic axis will also have cultural ramifications because this incredible economic expansion and growth is taking place in a culture and religious situation that is "non-Christian." To put it differently, the Asia Pacific rim is undergoing the fastest period of economic expansion in history, growing at five times the growth rate during the Industrial Revolution, but its economic growth will be accompanied by religious and cultural implications that are deeper in significance than those that happened at the time of the Reformation in Europe.

Tommy Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore confirms the observations of Naisbitt and Aburdene. Assessing the impact of the APEC meeting in Seattle, Koh notes that the fifteen economies that met in Seattle and which constitute the bulk of the APEC area now account for 400/0 of the world’s GNP and 500/o of the world’s trade. They are the most dynamic economies and have consistently grown exponentially in the past decade. Trade in this economic area will also grow exponentially as we come to the year 2000. U.S. trade with East Asia, for example, is now in the amount of US$345 billion, far outpacing trade with Europe which is only US$227 billion. The gap will grow even wider and at the rate the East Asia trade is growing, U.S. trade with the region will double that of Europe by the year 2000.

It is for this reason that the United States had put tremendous importance upon APEC. APEC obviously is key to the economic recovery of the United States. President Clinton put it even more stridently when he noted that the United States is not about to be left out of the economic activity of the region where it has provided security in the past. APEC, in other words, is one way by which the United States is trying to get economic dividend from what it considers to be its military and security investments in the past. It is also one concrete indication that the economic future of the world is located in very large measure in this area, so that the Asian economy will become even more competitive centers of economic power than they are now.

It is also for this reason that Ruth McVey, the very noted specialist in Southeast Asian studies at Cornell, started her book on Southeast Asian Capitalism it the cryptic lines, "A specter is haunting Asia; it is the specter of capitalism." McVey was pointing out that capitalism in Southeast Asia is now "real" and "firmly rooted." It has its own independent power, no longer a mere extension of other economic centers, and no longer what a Japanese economic analyst referred to as "ersatz capitalism." It is strong and will be even stronger in the coming years ahead. It is now changing and will change further the face of Asian life. McVey posits the possibility that at the beginning of the 21st century, the quintessential peasant and the rice paddy that have long been symbolic of Southeast Asian society will be replaced by the gleaming skyscrapers that house the financial centers in Singapore, Kuala Lump ur, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul.

IV. Some Geo-political Consequences

Many factors will intervene and determine whether or not all of these will in fact come into reality. The seminal signs however are there and it is important that we watch them carefully and intently. What I would like to move into now is to note some possible consequences in the geopolitical life of our area of work. Much of what I will say here are even more contingent ‘than what I have already said. I share them mostly as suggestive pointers.

A. For the first time in a long time, partly due to the upsurge of the Asia Pacific economies, the composite world economy is anticipated to grow by a rate of around 2.80/o - the highest ever since the Second World War. When the composite figures are broken down into regions, however, and then into sub-regions and countries, then the imbalances become quite glaring. Continentally, for example, Africa is considered to have the most negative performance, in part due to the fact that its average economic growth rate will be lower than its average population growth rate. In the ASEAN area, most of the countries will maintain a very high growth rate, in fact the highest averages in the world. There are a few countries within however that will not grow as much. Among other things, what this means is that there will continue to be a high rate of migration between the countries, and more specifically of migrant labor.

The issue of migration and of migrant labor will continue to be a major geopolitical issue of considerable consequence in the coming years ahead.

B. The drive towards greater and faster economic growth in an area of obviously incredible economic potential has already created, and will continue to create, an atmosphere of "economic diplomacy" among the nations of Asia. This has began to be quite obvious in the Asia Pacific region. What this means is that ideological considerations will be given less importance and weight in international relations in favor of practical economic relations and mutually and jointly creating the social, political and cultural climate and infrastructure for economic growth. There remain and will be some flash points of possible conflict. Negotiation and diplomacy rather than confrontation and war will, however, be emphasized as the mode of dealing with them. The economic opportunities, in short, are so enticing to be allowed to slip away in favor of some relatively less important political or ideological issues. A relative political peace will be worked at to provide the infrastructure for possible economic prosperity. I do not anticipate any major military or political conflagration between Asian nations in the years immediately ahead.

C. Economics is power. What the Asia Pacific countries are beginning to say is that power does not come only from the barrel of a gun; it comes also, and perhaps even more strongly from the size of one’s bank reserves. Poor nations no matter how ideologically and politically boastful will forever be dependent and weak. Richer nations will become more powerful not only economically but also politically. Thus, President Fidel V Ramos notes emphatically that the Philippines’ greatest security will depend upon its economic prosperity, not upon its political or military alliances.

What this means is that as Asian societies will become more economically affluent they will begin to provide more for their "national security" and depend less upon the "security cover" of the bigger powers. On the one hand, this will mean the modernization of national armies for greater efficiency for national defense. On the other hand, this will mean the building up of intra-Asian diplomacy and mutual defense, and presumably the strengthening of mechanisms for dealing with possible conflict situations. Military and political alliances with the larger political powers of Europe and North America will recede hopefully in favor of non-aggression agreements that should lead to a greater Asian zone of peace and prosperity. Asian independence in this sense becomes more real at the same time that Asian inter-dependence in a "global world" becomes the primary challenge to achieve.

D. Continuing economic progress and the affluence among people that this entails will be accompanied by increasing political liberalization. This, in fact, has began to happen. The strict and direct repressive military rules that have characterized many of the Asian societies have began to open up considerably. Unless some major economic collapses will occur, my guess is that as greater economic prosperity is achieved, a greater degree of political liberalization will ensue. Our work in the area of human rights, or in political organization, for example, must learn to adjust to a more "liberal milieu" instead of the more directly "fascist" or "military" rules that have been more characteristic of the past decades. A more open space for political participation and communication is I think distinctly emerging. Presuming the widening of such open space, then the situation will demand our greater imagination for relevant civil political and social action.

E. The reduction and recession of more specifically "ideological" factors in international and social relations will bring into the open more prominently the inherent ethnic, racial, religious and similar tensions as the possible major points of conflict in international, political and social life. Samuel Huntington’s thesis that with the " end of the Cold War" we are confronted not with "the end of history," but the open "dash of civilizations" is I think worth watching and thinking about more carefully and critically. Ethnic, racial and religious conflict and the questions posed by indigenous peoples are all part of this possible source of social conflict.

F. The glowing reports of economic growth and surging prospects for economic expansion should be of special interest to us because in this kind of a situation the poor become even more invisible and inaudible. As the ecumenical study guide on "Christian Faith and the World Economy Today" has so well documented, the number of those who still live in "absolute poverty" remains very high, even when there are signs that at last there is some reduction of the absolute numbers of those who are in such a state of existence. The commitment to the poor, at all times and under any economic, social or political condition, is part of the non-negotiable imperative of the social witness of the Church. This imperative remains although it may have to be confronted under very different or varying conditions.

V. Some Concluding Remarks

Some of you are probably thinking that I am much too optimistic about the Asian economic future and not judgmental enough about it. In a sense, this is correct. I must admit that I am quite bullish about the coming years of Asian history. I am not as euphoric as those who say that the 21st century is going to be the "golden age of Asia." But I want to wish with many others that Asia’s future must become better than its present, and that the conversion of our part of the world into dynamic and productive societies is something I hope for and will welcome.

Beyond our value judgments, wishes and feelings however are the realities that are now seemingly entrenched amidst us. Whatever wishes or disappointments we have, it is very clear to me that as a result of the economic developments I have generally described we are in the midst of one of the more monumental periods of Asian history. I suspect that even more than the repressive periods of recent Asian life, the coming years ahead will present us with issues and challenges that are more upsetting to our traditional ways of thinking and doing things. More upsetting because they will put into question not only our sense of justice and courage, but also our grasp of the horizons of human hope and imagination, and the new and still uncharted parameters of human struggle. This is a challenge that will have to be confronted not only by the Urban Rural Mission, but also by the whole Church and the whole ecumenical movement.

[This paper was presented at the 25th CCA-URM Programme Committee Meeting, 22-30 January 1994, Karachi, Pakistan]