The elephants in the room
Asian nations' continuously growing importance as global players was on display at the recent G-20 economic summit, writes Tom Plate
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Beverly Hills, California --- The Asian elephants were prancing on the London G-20 economic-reform summit with unaccustomed pomp and circumstance. This was something for the entire world to observe.
On center stage was China, visibly awakening from its long historical sleep, shaking off the past and getting up on all fours to assume its role as the world's probable future superpower.
Then there was oft-jilted Japan, shedding its trademark silent-type diplomatic style to bray off a few trumpet warnings in the direction of the other elephants (and everyone else in the geopolitical jungle) that it was far from ready for any funereal trek to the elephants' burial ground.
And then there was elusive India, now moving forward slowly but ever-so surely, the proud matriarch of a billion children, the carrier of ancient philosophies and the historical mother of countless cautions.
And observe the United States, already the established Pacific power since the end of the Second World War, standing back while looking on with both awe and apprehension. Barack Obama, its new and sharp and articulate leader, got his share of the limelight to be sure, but he did not and could not dominate, as American presidents had so often before, the current jungle of our time.
The age of Asia was coming like a herd of elephants on the horizon. Power was being pushed out of the West and across and down to all continents. The general global consensus that Washington's concept of market capitalism was an infinitely workable blueprint for the world economy began to evaporate like a summer rain under the glare of a harsh and revealing sun.
And yes -- it happened in the city of London.
Representing China, President Hu Jintao seemed comfortable in his Western-style suit, but carried the implicit message that Western economic dominance isn't what it used to be and the U.S. dollar was losing currency as the only conceivable intercontinental collateral coin. The Chinese had a lot of clout: They had a lot of money to throw at the problems. Everyone knows that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Representing Japan, Prime Minister Taro Aso seemed to be chafing at his tusk to be heard. Once upon a time in the Pacific, the Japanese voice in economic affairs was predominant. Who else remotely had their kind of money? But no longer are they the only big spender in the jungle.
Even so, Aso, facing low opinion-poll ratings at home, rose to the occasion by drawing on the experience of Japan's own economic hospitalization in the last decade. Wisely and loudly, he warned against not employing aggressive national stimulus policies to escape the trap of recession: "Because of the experience of the past 15 years, we know what is necessary, while countries like the U.S. and European countries may be facing this sort of situation for the first time." Though down, if not yet out, politically in Japan, Aso offered a useful and clear headed perspective that may have weighed on France and Germany -- reluctant to believe that stimulus alone was the right Rx.
Then there was Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India. If we could give an economic IQ test to the leaders of the world's 20 participating nations, would anyone get a higher score than this orchestrator of India's economic reforms? Cautioning against the expectation of quick results from the summit as well as against a reversion to protectionism, Singh -- governor of the Reserve Bank of India from 1982 to 1985, India's finance minister from 1991 to 1996, and, since 2004, the first Sikh to hold the post of prime minister -- brings to the global economic table precisely what is needed during this dreadful world crisis: keen intellect and patient judgment.
Unregulated globalization is now about to be slapped with a rift of new and needed regulation; suspiciously elusive banking tax havens are now to be splashed with the disinfectant of sunlight and oversight; the once big, bad and arrogant International Monetary Fund (about as popular in Asia as SARS) is about to be led into an unaccustomed consumer-friendly direction. The Washington-based IMF is about to get the kind of scrutiny that will attend just about everything that comes out of Washington now.
Make no mistake about it: The consensus view about Washington is that a lot of our current trouble emanates from the United States. No country's hands are clean. Our cumulative problems are indeed collective, but there is a leading culprit. Those of us who still love America can only thank our fate that our leading man is who he is. He makes it all easier to take.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 4/3/2009