Asia in the 21st Century
by Dr. Walden Bello
1. I must confess that on long flights like the one I took from Frankfurt to Bangkok, I sometimes get an attack of what the Germans call angst, when the ground suddenly slips from under your feet, when your most solid convictions momentarily melt.
2. The most recent one I had was occasioned by a survey of recent patterns of economic growth in Asia, where 4-5 per cent growth rates are now considered low, where 8-10 per cent growth rates are considered normal, where growth is seen as a tide lifting all boats, including the Philippines, which with its 5 per cent growth rate in 1994 is said to be leaving its role as the "sick man of Asia."
3. Something that one columnist wrote about me in the heat of the recent debate we had on the ratification of GATT returned to me in the midst of these ruminations: that I was an "incorrigible Cassandra" of the impossibility of development in the South in the current world order. Are we in this meeting in fact Cassandras, who see problems where they arent or magnify those that exist because we are psychologically hopelessly oppositionist?
4. The current consensus celebrating Asian economic growth is a powerful, persuasive, and ideologically hegemonic alliance of government technocrats, business people, and intellectuals. Today, this consensus stresses two points:
5. Of course, there are some differences within this coalition. For instance, there are those who see growth mainly as resulting mainly from a greater play of market forces, while others still uphold a role for a strong activist state. But everybody comes together around the desirability of high-speed economic growth.
6. Representatives of this ideology do not deny that there are problems that have come with this growth. They admit to the spread of inequality and environmental damage. But they say, "These are really first-stage problems. They are not intrinsic to the growth process. Besides by generating wealth, growth creates the wherewithal to solve these problems in the future. Or, as some put it, "only when wealth makes us predominantly middle-class societies will we have the luxury to worry and the means to solve these problems."
7. Just when your defenses begin to crumble, Korea comes to mind, specifically agriculture in Korea.
8. Just when your defenses begin to crumble, Taiwan comes to mind.
9. Or take Thailand, which just four years ago, in this very city, the World Bank and the IMP declared as a model for the rest of the world.
10. So the question: Are the problems that we Cassandras highlight transitional problems, as the growth ideologues claim? Or are the extinction of agriculture, the spread of social inequality, and march of ecological devastation intrinsic to the model? I think the evidence is stronger for the side that says that these problems stem from the very logic of high-speed growth. Taiwan, Korea, and Thailand today are the face of the 21st century should this model continue to hold sway. And if this is the face of the 21st century, is it worth it dragging the rest of the region to this acme of development?
11. But aside from the deepening of inequality and rampant ecological devastation, there is another feature of this model that is creating consternation, though this is something one will not be able to discern in the Far Eastern Economic Review or the Asian Wall Street Journal: this is the emergence not of autonomous national economies but of a precariously dependent regional economy. Let me elaborate:
12. The purveyors of the ideology of high-speed growth offer not only the vision of permanent prosperity but also of lasting peace. No one captures this conviction of the correlation of prosperity and peace in the region more than Tommy Koh, formerly Singapores ambassador to Washington, who says: Asia is a region of booming economies that is at peace with itself."
13. The evidence of the senses, of the here and now, appears to confirm Kohs assertion, but does it hold up against history and analysis. It depends on your time frame, and if you look at the last 150 years, from the time of the last massive wave of imperial expansion into the region, East Asia has, for most of the period, been one of the two storm centers of world global geopolitics, the other being Europe. Indeed, in the post-war period, the two major wars of the Cold War were fought not in Europe but in Asia. This extended period of relative peace, which dates from 1975, when Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City, appears in this view to be more the exception than the rule.
14. But let us look more closely at this period of relative peace. What has changed? True, the Cold War is over, but a myriad points of tension and conflict remain. Indeed, these points of tension are now likely to be exacerbated, now that the discipline of the Cold War is over. Among these points of tension are:
15. Now unlike in Europe, where you have had NATO, you do not have a multilateral peace and security mechanism operative in the Asia-Pacific, nor is there a mechanism that can move conflicts away from resolution by force to resolution by diplomacy. What there is to ensure the peace is a very volatile, informal, hybrid system of regional security with three pillars:
So we basically have balance of power politics cum U.S. military unilateralism as the regions fragile mechanism of security. In this connection, I would like to call your attention to Reinhold Niebuhrs observation on the balance of power in Europe from 1815 to 1914, which kept the peace for a hundred years only to explode in the Great War of 1914: "Balance of power is a sort of managed anarchy in which anarchy overcomes management in the end." What our elite are telling us is that the sort of managed anarchy that we have right now is enough to ensure the peace, especially since it is built on prosperity.
16. In fact, recent trends call into question this correlation between peace and prosperity in the absence of a multilateral peace and security system:
17. One of the most important conditions for peace is the spread of democratic government. Democracies, it is observed, seldom go to war with one another, whereas authoritarian governments have a propensity for war. It think that the reason is simple: in democracies, though they may be no more than formal democracies, there are mechanisms like checks and balances, the free press, public opinion which assure that, even if a democracy has gone to war wrongfully, its policy can be reversed. But authoritarian regimes do not have such internal checks. Indeed, authoritarian regimes tend to channel outwards, sometimes onto overt aggression, the internal tensions that have built up owing to the repression of political expression. Had Indonesia been democratic in 1975, I doubt if the invasion of East Timor would have taken place. The Asia-Pacific would be a more peaceful and stable region today if there were less authoritarian regimes around and democracy were more universal.
18. Indeed, the absence of democracy as an element of the vision that our elite are promoting is deafening. Instead, they have mounted an offensive to convince their populations that Asians have their own peculiar forms of governance, that they have their own brand of "democracy" that does not have the Western emphasis on individual rights, electoral competition, the free press, free assembly, and checks and balances. Asians, like good Confucians, says Lee Kwan Yew, value order over change, hierarchy over false equality, and cooperation and mutual respect between elite and the masses. Asians, we are told, fear that too much democracy may undermine the East Asian economic miracle. I dont know about you, but when I read Lee Kwan Yews list of supposed Asian values, I do not see Asian values but good British, upper-class, Tory values.
19. Let us come to the point. This whole rigmarole about Asian or Confucian democracy is really a counteroffensive by alarmed elite to the great democratic wave that has been sweeping Asia since 1986, which has claimed the lives of authoritarian dictatorships in the Philippines in 1986, Korea in 1987 Taiwan over the last few years, and Thailand in May 1992. However imperfect these democracies are, however much they continue to be characterized by political and economic domination by elite, the systems of governance in the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, are different from those that reign in China and the ASEAN FourSingapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bruneiand that dividing line is what Lee Kwan Yew, Mohammed Mahathir, and other champions of Asian authoritarianism are trying to ensure will endure.
20. In short, the Asian economic miracle has not rendered irrelevant the progressives message. We are not Cassandras. We are merely pointing to flaws as obvious as 8-10 per cent growth rates. But our message must be restated, reformulated, and renewed. Let me end by articulating the three elements of the alternative paradigm (though I will reserve for my talk tomorrow the elaboration of some of the aspects of this program):
(Ed. note: This paper was presented at the 26th CCA-URM Programme Committee Meeting, 12-18 February 1995, Bangkok, Thailand.)