By Seamus Grimes
In a wide-ranging analysis of all the countries of Asia, John West explores in his new book “Asian Century…on a Knife-edge” seven major challenges facing Asia, arriving at a somewhat negative conclusion of this region’s ability to overcome them. Compared with the OECD’s 18%, Asia accounts for 55% of the world’s population and while containing huge differences in terms of country size, composition and economic circumstances, Asia is nevertheless characterized by many similarities. The key challenges identified include (1) obtaining better value from participation in global value chains, (2) reaping the benefits of urbanization, (3) achieving higher levels of equality, (4) resolving demographic issues, (5) dealing with deficiencies of political institutions, (6) combating economic crime and (7) achieving peace and harmony.
West explores these challenges in detail in the 12 chapters of the book, providing a wealth of empirical data to support his analysis. While the book has a clearly developed framework for assessing Asia’s likelihood of overcoming major challenges, the approach is not built on any particular theoretical school of thought and the bibliography consists mainly of reports from global institutions such as the OECD, the World Bank and Human Rights Watch. The author, however, clearly has an encyclopedic knowledge of a wide range of fundamental issues affecting all countries in Asia and his analysis focuses effectively on drawing out the significance of interconnections between the various countries. Not only is it an impressive comparative analysis, but it also provides a very valuable context for understanding the nature of development in any of the particular countries examined. Because of this it is essential reading for policymakers with exposure to the region.
Although much of the book will present few surprises to those watching Asia, the voluminous data is woven into a coherent synopsis of major trends in the region. While the book provides an impressive analysis of the key economic, social and political issues facing Asian countries, the author’s central concern with the widespread abuse of large sections of populations in many countries is quite striking. There is an in-depth analysis of why some countries in the region have performed more effectively than others in terms of economic development, suggesting that only a small number of countries like Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea have succeeded in catching up with the more advanced regions of the world.
While many parts of Asia and particularly China have been poised to make significant strides in recent times, West argues that both internal obstacles and global forces are coinciding to make further significant progress such as moving up value chains and not falling into the middle income trap increasingly difficult. The global forces such as the growing anti-globalisation sentiment associated with Trump’s emergence and Brexit are likely to close off further global integration of Asian countries with the advanced world, according to West. Meanwhile, China’s increased confidence on the global stage, and its significant international leadership in major projects such the One Belt One Road initiative is casting a very negative shadow on the potential for positive contributions from the US. The absence of trust between these two major economic powers will make it difficult to bring forward a more positive approach towards policymaking for the greater good of humanity.
Many of the internal obstacles within Asia stem from individual states’ lack of willingness to implement the necessary changes to provide greater social justice and equity for their populations. In China’s case, the Communist Party’s fear social unrest if major market constraints were to be eliminated. While China has made enormous strides in moving its economic activity into innovative, higher value-added sectors, the continuation of this will prove demanding so long as the state exercises such binding control over education and creativity. West, on the other hand holds out significant prospects for India, although it too must overcome huge limitations in its educational system. Japan, however, which was one of the first Asian nations to make enormous progress has now been in the economic doldrums for many years, and with its population in decline and a low marriage rate, the outlook is not optimistic.
West rightly pays considerable attention to the nation’s demography. Japan’s population has been in decline since 2010, while Korea has the fastest ageing population in the OECD, with both countries being affected by slower economic growth. Labour productivity in China is only around 15-30% of the OECD level, while its labour force has also begun to fall. Unlike Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, which successfully went through their Lewis turning points, Malaysia and Thailand have already fallen into the middle-income trap, which may also be the fate of China. China has the additional problem whereby 19% of its population constitute ‘floating’ rural migrants with few rights to basic social services. West rightly questions Chinese policy priorities which allocate enormous funding in projects such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, while neglecting the basic needs of large sections of its population.
In his characteristic forthright manner, West highlights the widespread abuse of human rights in Asia and argues that perhaps one of the most extreme examples is that of depriving possibly 117-163 million women of the right to life because of prenatal gender selection, with 57% attributable to China, and exacerbated with its one-child policy, and 30% to India. A serious consequence of this is that after 2030, the number of single men seeking a wife in China and India could exceed the available unmarried women by 50-60%. Other countries in Asia such as Singapore have also followed eugenics-like policies of fertility control and are now finding it difficult to reverse the trend. While a more liberal immigration policy might alleviate the major differences between Asian regions in terms of population surpluses and deficits, Japan in particular is most reluctant to open its borders to immigrants.
In highlighting the many policy challenges facing Asian countries, West provides important insights into failed economic and social policies and very strong arguments for the need to learn the lessons of such failures. His conclusion, however, suggests that the many of the various negative social and cultural practices which results in the undervaluing of large sections of populations in Asian countries are likely to continue to hinder major improvements.
Seamus Grimes is Emeritus Professor at the Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Social Change, National University of Ireland, Galway. He is the co-author of the recently published “China and Global Value Chains: Globalization and the Information and Communications Technology Sector”.